When most parents ask this question, it’s because they think there’s a legal requirement, but in most states, there is no hard and fast age for leaving a child at home alone. And there’s a very good reason why.
Children mature at different rates and some children may have special needs so, the decision can’t be defined by age alone. Your eleven year old may be okay to leave at home for a quick trip to the grocery store while my 14 year old may only get in trouble if left home alone. If you’re considering allowing your child to fly solo at the house, you’ll need to consider several factors, including your child’s maturity level, his or her emotional and physical needs, the overall environment, and your child’s ability to handle responsibility.
With today’s economic environment, in many cases, the decision to leave a child at home alone for a short while comes down to a financial decision. It’s a tough call. Though many parents long for the day they won’t have to pay for a babysitter, giving any child such a new and large responsibility should only come when they are ready.
And remember: even IF a child has the maturity to care for themselves, that doesn’t always mean they’re ready to care for other children. In fact, very rarely is one child ready to care for another.
Readiness and willingness are not the same
Just because a child is willing to assume responsibility doesn’t mean he or she is ready for it. Too often we interpret willingness and readiness as the same thing when they aren’t (you see this in politics all the time). A child needs to be ready AND willing … and able.
Too often the authorities are brought in when a case has already gone wrong and the causes are eerily similar:
- A child was given too much responsibility too soon
- A child was given too much freedom for their maturity level
- A parent thought that a child who assumed responsibility was ready for it
If your child isn’t ready (and you know it), consider day camps, sports camps, or sharing a babysitter with a co-worker. And always ask: How much experience does this person have with children? Do they have verifiable references? Children are at greater risk of harm when under the “care” of someone with little experience, a questionable background, and when they don’t really share any bond with a child.
Recommendations for parents
If you’re at the point where you believe your child may be ready for this step, take these steps yourself first:
- Make sure your child knows how to call 911 in an emergency and knows what an emergency really is.
- Check the local offender registry to see if anyone lives in your neighborhood. I use Family Watchdog.
- Give small windows of responsibility to your child that work towards longer durations. Let them care for a pet or complete certain chores around the house to gage their responsibility level.
- Set clear boundaries (no pool privileges or using the stove). Those boundaries can also include rules about guests or friends coming over while you aren’t there as well as where the child can and cannot go during the day.
- Make certain someone you trust is nearby that your child can call on for quick assistance.
- Remember that the television is a horrible babysitter so give your child chores to do and plenty of books to read. Be sure and ask about what they did and read when you get home.
Photo by greggoconnell