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How Old is Old Enough to Stay Home Alone?


When Jane turned 10 all she wanted for her birthday was to stay home alone. That was the big gift. She wanted me to go to the drycleaner or the grocery store and to leave her alone. I think we’d left the kids home alone before that, like Mr. G and I would take walks after dinner and leave the kids but we’re babysitter free these days unless driving or homework help is required.

Friends of ours left their kids home alone beginning in 3rd grade, or about 8.

In two separate private groups right now there are debates raging about how old is old enough to be left home alone. This is an incredibly personal decision and it’s highly charged with both sides thinking the other is a bad parent. I’m pretty sure your child won’t be prepared for life, you’re pretty sure my kids are neglected.

The US Department of  Health and Human Services says this:

Legal Guidelines

Some parents look to the law for help in deciding when it is appropriate to leave a child home alone. According to the National Child Care Information Center, only Illinois and Maryland currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone.1 Even in those States other factors, such as concern for a child’s well-being and the amount of time the child is left alone, are considered. States that do not have laws may still offer guidelines for parents. For information on laws and guidelines in your State, contact your local CPS agency. If you need help contacting your local CPS agency, call Childhelp® at 800.422.4453.

Age and Maturity

There is no agreed-upon age when all children are able to stay home alone safely. Because children mature at different rates, you should not base your decision on age alone.

You may want to evaluate your child’s maturity and how he or she has demonstrated responsible behavior in the past. The following questions may help:

  • Is your child physically and mentally able to care for him- or herself?
  • Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
  • Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?

Years ago I read Spin Sisters. It does a decent job of unraveling some of the mythology around the chatter that “the world today is a dangerous place”. Lenore Skenazy does a good job of keeping us current on the reality of crime statistics.

I’m not overly worried about strangers and my kids. I don’t freak out about them playing alone at the park or crossing wide boulevards. What I do worry about are coaches, boyfriends of other parents and scout leaders. I worry that the kids will cook and burn themselves so I don’t allow cooking. I worry that they’ll drown so they aren’t allowed by the pool when I’m not home.

I worry that kids are treated as fragile. Earlier this week I was in Florida and the omelette chef forgot to add cheese for another lady. He flipped the omelette open and quipped, “It’s not about how many mistakes you make. It’s about how you fix them.” And he went on to present her with a beautiful cheesy omelette. How will my children ever learn from their mistakes if they aren’t given the opportunities to make them?

Photo credit Darwin Bell via Flickr and Creative Commons

10 thoughts on “How Old is Old Enough to Stay Home Alone?”

  1. I agree. There isnt a magic one size fits all age. And while 8 may seem so young to some, I can assure you I was far more responsible at 8 than at 15, when I wanted to just hang out with boys. You will worry about your kids forever. Just raise them up and let them fly. And it doesn’t hurt to turn on the house alarm either.

  2. I parent like my parents did … which means I give my kids the freedom they earn when they show me they can be responsible. My son has earned that trust since he was 8. He’s not neglected, he’s being taught to be self sufficient.

  3. What scares me the most as a father is that my kids will be like I was when I was young. The things we did in high school and college, oy.

    I listened to a mother talk about hiring a potty trainer coach the other day and almost choked on my lunch. We really are doing a fine job of trying to find ways to wrap our children in bubble wrap.

  4. I grew up in Detroit in the 70’s, not the suburbs of Detroit, but in the city of. My single mother raised 5 kids and sent us all to Parochial school. I was a latch key kid from day 1 of first grade. If an older sibling happened to hang around after school and wait for me it was a bonus, but if not I had a key and I knew my way home (across a main hwy and straight for 3 blocks). If I lost my key I also knew where my brother hid a butter knife that would easily unlock the front window.
    My daughter was mature enough to leave home alone for errands and such by age 8 and became a certified Red Cross babysitter at age 10.
    My son, well, he is 22 now and lives in New Zealand, but when he is home, I still try not to leave him alone too long.

  5. When my daughter was in the sixth grade, I decided to let he participate in a latchkey program where she came home from school by herself, while I was at work. We lived in a second floor apartment. One day she came home, opened the apartment door, and lots of smoke came out. Even though we had two cats and she wanted to save them, she had the sense to go to the neighbors and tell them that she thought our apartment was on fire. I got the call at work and raced home to see the cloud of smoke in the distance as I approached the apartment. I was very shaken from experience — not that the apartment was on fire but what could have happened had my daughter decided to try to rescue her cats first before seeking help. It’s a big scary decision.

  6. I was sure the stay-at-home-alone laws applied to all states – thank you for letting me know CA has no such laws in place. Now to figure out if I can do it for any length of time… *hand wringing*

  7. Such a great conversation. I was crazy overprotective of my first two boys. Now 18 & 17. They managed to still find the most incredible ways to make mistakes and learn from them. Especially my oldest. I think my second son learned from his mistakes. He has so far made far less. Or just not gotten caught. Maybe that’s what he learned.

    My 3rd? I’m WAY less protective. And? He’s the most responsible at a young age. Yesterday I was desperate for a run and I convinced myself it would be ok to leave him while I ran for 30 minutes. He’s 8.

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