Choosing the right time to let your child stay home alone can be a tough. After all, up to this point you've spent her whole life making sure she was safe and had everything she ever needed. It's hard to know when it's okay to let go and let her look after herself for a little while. While not every state has a concrete number to go by, there are safety guidelines in place to help you make an informed decision.
Some states have guidelines for the minimum age a child must be in order to be left alone, but most don't. However, Latchkey Keys says state governments are increasingly moving towards implementing these guidelines because of the growing number of single-parent families and families in which both parents have to work. Legal ages range from 8 years old in states like Maryland, Georgia and North Carolina, to 14 in states like Illinois, and in most cases are a general rule of thumb rather than a law.
Your Child's Maturity
Much of what each state looks for when determining whether a child being left home alone is safe or not is the child's personal levels of maturity and cognition. Illinois.gov says a child who shows the ability to handle responsibility independently and carries out chores with a minimum of supervision may be ready to look after themselves for short periods of time. Being able to think through problems as well as being aware of the needs of other people are also signs that your child is aware of the world around her and can respond to it. These characteristics seem to appear in many children between the ages of 10 and 12 but every child is different. If your child is prone to rash decisions or impulsive behaviors, you may want to wait until she's a little older.
Everything She Needs
If you believe your child is ready to handle being left alone for a while, great. But before you cancel the babysitter, think about your circumstances. Does your child have everything she needs? Child protection agencies say a child must have adequate heating, cooling, water, food and shelter. If she's going to be left alone long enough to need a meal, is she going to have to prepare it? Is she going to have to look after younger siblings? Being able to care for herself and being able to look after others are entirely different. And consider the neighborhood you live in. Is it safe and well-lighted? Do you know your neighbors and do you trust them?
When you feel you're both ready -- you as the nervous parent and she as the excited child -- then it's a great idea to sit down and devise a safety plan. After all, being home alone might be fun for her, and free up a little much-needed room in your budget, but it can also be dangerous. She needs to know what to do in case something goes wrong. Make sure she knows her full name, address and telephone number in the event of an emergency. She should also have a list of important telephone numbers, including the police, fire department and nearby relatives or friends you trust. Discuss your plan in the event someone comes to the door or calls while you're gone, and lay down rules for going outside, having friends over and cooking.
Before doing it for real, give it a test run, suggests Child Welfare. Leave the house for a brief period of time and talk about how it felt when you come back. Try out different possible scenarios, like what she should do if she gets locked out of the house or who she should call if she can't get in touch with you. Then when you do venture out for the first time, make sure she always knows where you are and what number to call to reach you. Check in frequently to see how she's doing. Above all, don't overdo it. Keep the times she's alone to a few hours at a time until you both gain the confidence and experience to safely lengthen them.
- Visage/Stockbyte/Getty Images