Is Your Child Ready to Be Home Alone?

pawel-parentstoolshopMost parents know accidents can happen in the blink of an eye. So when children start becoming more independent, many parents wonder whether their child is ready to be home alone. To know the answer, parents must look at both a child’s age and maturity.

There is an unwritten rule-of thumb among social service and law enforcement professionals that no child nine-years-old or younger should be left home alone – no matter how mature. Older children who are immature or irresponsible should also not be home alone.

By the age of eight, children need to know the following skills so they can be home alone responsibly:

  • Basic first aid,
  • When and how to call 9-1-1,
  • What to do if there is a fire,
  • How to fix meals without a stove, to prevent fires,
  • How to answer the phone (if they are allowed to answer it),
  • The house rules and a track record of following them.

Before leaving a child home alone with younger siblings, consider these issues:

  • Siblings under the age of eleven or twelve-years-old should never be responsible for younger siblings — even if they are the most responsible children in the world! Imagine the emotional trauma should anything happen.
  • When the youngest child is about seven- or eight-years-old and the oldest is at least thirteen-years-old, it is safer for them to be alone.
  • Children should be at least thirteen-years-old to care for infants and need special training. Have them help with the baby while the parent is present, to coach them before leaving them alone.
  • No minor should watch more than three or four children under the age of ten. Younger children (ages eleven to thirteen) should only watch one or two children who are older than toddlers.
  • If the children don’t get along, especially if one torments the other, they shouldn’t be alone together without an adult present.
  • Remember, sometimes the older child is not the more responsible one. Sometimes siblings can stay home together but independently. Each is responsible for their own care, without a sibling “telling them what to do,” which can cause conflicts.

Finally, here are some basic rules a parent should set for children who will be home alone:

  • No visitors. It’s too tempting to experiment when a peer is present. Also, the absent parent may be held legally liable should something happen in their home, even in their absence.
  • Depending on the neighborhood, children should stay inside. At the least, encourage them to stay on their own property where they have access to a phone. If older children (13+) are allowed to go places, they should tell the parent where they will be, only go where there will be adult supervision, and provide a contact number to reach the child.
  • No phone calls or limit all calls to fifteen minutes so parents can reach the child.
  • Decide whether the child is allowed to answer the phone. If the home has Caller ID, the child can answer calls from familiar callers rather than not answer at all. Parents can also have a signal (2 rings and they hang up) so child knows when to answer.
  • Keep doors and windows locked, depending on the weather/climate, air conditioning and neighborhood safeness. Teach children what to do if someone comes to the door and what to do if it is a stranger. Not answering is the best policy. Children should also have a way to watch what the stranger does. If the stranger acts suspicious, they should call the police.
  • No cooking on the stove until they are experienced cooks, usually around age thirteen, if parents have been teaching and supervising them from about age eight or so.
  • Obvious things like no smoking, drinking, or girlfriends/boyfriends.

Once the child has the skills to be alone, start by taking short trips, about ten minutes. Gradually increase the time as you and your child feel more comfortable.

If children act irresponsibly or are unwilling to follow these rules, they need to have a sitter for a brief period. Then get agreements and give them another chance to show they can be home alone safely and responsibly.


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent's Toolshop® Consulting. She is the author of 100+ resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop, at www.ParentsToolshop.com. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic at: http://www.parentstoolshop.com/tele/telearchive.htm

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