Many parents are unsure whether they should leave their older kids home alone. For parents who work, this is particularly an issue during the summer. But it also applies during school vacations and during the after-school hours.
So, how do you know if your child is responsible enough to be left home alone? And, if you don’t think he is responsible enough, how do you respond appropriately if he insists on being left alone?
Before we jump into deciding whether your child is responsible enough to be left home alone, you should know that some states have legal restrictions on how old a child must be before being left alone in your house.
We recommend that you look into the regulations in your home state. We have provided a link at the end of this article to a page that provides that contact information for the local child welfare offices in the United States. For our readers in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere around the world, please check with your respective local governments.
As of 2018, only 3 states in the U.S. have laws that specify the minimum age for leaving a child home alone: Illinois (14 years old); Maryland (8 years old); and Oregon (10 years old). Many other states have laws that make it illegal to fail to provide adequate supervision, but notably do not specify a specific age cutoff.
For more information on the legal aspects of leaving your child alone at home, please see the links that I have provided at the end of this article.
If your child is legally old enough to be left home alone, how can you tell if he actually deserves to be left home alone?
What if you’ve tried it before, and your child broke your trust by having too many friends over, or by not getting her chores done in the time you scheduled for her?
While every family is different, there are certainly some good guidelines for how to decide whether a child is responsible enough to stay home alone, even part of the time.
If your child doesn’t meet these basic criteria, don’t worry. We’ll talk more about how to work towards those goals a little later in this article.
Once you’ve made the decision to let them try being on their own, there are several things you might want to consider.
Be very clear with your child about your rules and expectations. Don’t expect your child to “just know” what the rules are. Your ideas about common sense aren’t necessarily the same as your child’s.
This includes any daily chores, as well as rules around how many friends can be in the house at one time, and whether your child can leave your home to go elsewhere. Clarity now means fewer problems later.
Make sure that you explain ahead of time the consequences of disobeying the rules while he is home alone. Make sure that your child understands exactly what he stands to lose.
In other words, just as you need to be clear about your expectations, you also need to be clear about the consequences for not meeting those expectations. Again, clarity now means fewer problems later.
Make sure that you have a back-up plan in the event your child breaks the rules and is unable to stay home alone. Can your child be sent to a parent, grandparent, or family friend? Is there a day camp, vocational program, or volunteer service where they might spend their day?
Also, make sure that your child is fully aware that you have a backup plan. Make sure your child knows where they’ll be going if they can’t comply with your rules. If your child doesn’t know there is a backup plan, or believes that you don’t have any other options, then there is less incentive to obey the rules.
For example, if you say “you only get to stay home alone during the day if you complete x,y, and z, and have no more than 3 friends over at any one time,” but your kid knows you have nowhere else to send her, why should she follow the rules? As a parent, you’re effectively powerless in that situation.
A backup plan helps to tell your child that you are serious about your rules. And it gives you leverage.
Don’t force your child to adhere to a strict structure while you’re not home. It’s impossible to dictate what your child does in any given hour while you’re not there.
While it’s tempting to give a long list of things to be done each day so that your child has no time to get into trouble, such an approach is unlikely to be effective. Be reasonable about what you ask your child to do and rely on your consequences instead of structure to encourage them to comply with your rules.
I do think that it is a good idea to assign a few chores each day. But allow there to be down time in there, too. If there is no benefit to staying home alone—freedom, play time, spontaneity—your child won’t bother complying with the rules that let him stay home alone in the first place.
I recommend giving your child a reasonable list of things you expect to be completed by the time you return home. Let her know that she can choose when she does them, but that they have to be done. Letting your child dictate the order and rhythm of her day will help her learn to manage her time effectively. It’s definitely a learning curve, so use your consequences to help her practice those skills.
And try to think back to your own childhood. If you were left home alone with a list of chores that needed to be completed before mom or dad got home, when did you do those chores? Most likely, you rushed to complete them in the last twenty minutes before their car pulled in the driveway. Your kid is no different. Have reasonable expectations.
Don’t dive right in with leaving your child alone all day, every day. If possible, give your child a limited trial run. Let them know that they will earn more time alone as they show you they can handle it. This will allow you to gauge their ability to follow the rules and to stay home alone safely.
If your child is basically responsible then you can be a little more generous with your starting point. By responsible, I mean, that they generally follow the rules, have decent grades, and are respectful most of the time.
If this is your child, you might have them in a half-day program somewhere, or give them one day a week to try things at home on their own. Extend that time as you see them consistently meet your expectations.
If your child isn’t so good at following the rules, or show signs of defiance, give him a chance to earn an hour at home by himself while you head to the store or the gym. You might say to your child:
“I know you want to stay home alone. But I need to see that you can comply with my rules. So, I’m willing to let you earn some time home alone as a trial run.”
Then explain the rules. For example, if he completes all of his chores for three days in a row, he earns an hour home alone. If he is successful, then you can extend the time.
Doing it this way lets your child know exactly what skills they need to improve, and what they can expect to receive for that improvement. Break it down into steps. Help them learn and practice those steps.
If your child fails to meet your expectations, you can put them back on the reduced schedule. You might even give them a warning:
“You didn’t get your chores done while you were home today. I’ll give you a chance to do better tomorrow. But if you can’t get them done tomorrow, you’ll go back to a half day again. I know you want to be on your own, so show me you can handle it.”
Give your child a chance to succeed. If your child lies, or breaks the rules, apply your consequences but then allow him to try again.
Let your child earn his freedom back again. Look, kids want autonomy. They want to be able to be in charge of their own day. That’s a powerful motivator. Use it to your advantage by letting your child earn back your trust, even if he’s broken the rules.
If you tell him he doesn’t have a chance to earn back that daily privilege of being home alone, why would he follow any of your rules this summer?
Remember, as James Lehman says in The Total Transformation® program: you can’t punish a child into good behavior. But you can help your child improve his behavior through the use of the right consequences.
The right consequences actually motivate your child to good behavior, put you back in control, and teaches your child how to problem-solve. It gives your child the skills needed to be a successful adult.
Remember, you actually want your child to have the skills it takes to stay at home safely and responsibly. You want her to learn the time-management and self-regulation skills that will let her balance work and play responsibly.
Contact Information for Local Child Welfare Agencies in U.S.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. (2018) “Leaving Your Child Home Alone.” https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/homealone.pdf
KidsHealth.org. “Leaving Your Child Home Alone.” (2018) https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/home-alone.html
Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.