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Darwin Bell

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