Staying home alone: When is it safe for kids?

Dr. Stephanie Hanson helps parents, kids prep for this step toward independence

11-12-year-old girl sits on her bed doing homework, home alone after school.

With many children attending school in a hybrid model or having shorter than typical school days, many parents are questioning whether their children are old enough to stay home alone.

“It’s important to understand your child’s capacity for independence and thoughtful decision-making,” said Dr. Stephanie Hanson, a pediatrician at the Sanford Health Moorhead Campus in Moorhead, Minnesota. “Just like how children vary in their developmental milestones, they certainly vary in their degree of personal responsibility and confidence in staying home alone too.”

To help you decide if your child is ready to stay home alone safely, Dr. Hanson shares these tips.

Let their confidence take the lead

Chances are, your child already shows some signs of their ability to safely stay home alone.

“There’s lots of ways you can determine if your child is ready for the responsibility,” said Dr. Hanson.

Follow their cues and notice if your child is able to:

  • Get home from school safely
  • Successfully use keys to unlock the front door and lock it again once inside
  • Say their full name, phone number and address from memory
  • Understand how to tell time
  • Use the phone to ask a neighbor for help or call 911
  • Make a snack, do homework and follow simple rules on their own
  • Manage their own self-care, such as going to the bathroom independently
  • Perform basic first aid, such as putting on a bandage or running cool water over a burn

Do a home alone trial run

Always make sure your child feels comfortable and safe before letting them stay home alone.

One of the best ways to know if they feel prepared is to practice ahead of time by talking through what they would do in different situations. This may include practicing how to call a neighbor, developing a script for answering the phone and knowing what to say if someone knocks on the door.

Then, gradually increase the amount of time your child can be home alone, along with their responsibilities.

These same tips also apply to having your child babysit for the first time. Dr. Hanson recommends having your child take a babysitting class to become familiar with the skills and responsibilities that come with watching younger children.

“Beyond that, it’s really like learning how to ride a bike,” she said. “You want to start them out with training wheels, so it should be for a short duration of time for kids who are maybe a little bit older. Then take gradual steps.”

Dr. Hanson also suggests having your child babysit for a family member or a neighbor before someone they don’t know as well. This way, your child can develop their skills in an environment where they feel comfortable.

“I know my first babysitting experience, other than for my siblings, was for my next-door neighbor,” said Dr. Hanson. “I rode the bus home from school with her children and had maybe an hour before she would come home from work. That was a wonderful way for me to develop those skills and understand what it is like to work for someone and follow their guidelines.”

Preparing ahead of time

Before allowing any of your children to stay home alone, make sure they know the rules, like calling or texting a parent when they get home from school. Also set expectations around homework, screen time and what snack or other food they are allowed to make or eat.

“The most basic thing is that your child understands what to do if they need help, whether that’s calling you or asking a neighbor,” said Dr. Hanson.

With preparation as the key to success, you can help your child feel confident, even if they are a little nervous.

“You never want your child to feel overwhelmed or stressed in a situation where they are alone. But at the same time, when they’re old enough, it gives them some opportunities to problem solve as they build skills and confidence in their abilities,” Dr. Hanson said.

A few general rules

Depending on where you live, your state may have different supervision guidelines.

Some states, like North Dakota, provide guidelines to give parents a starting place. These include:

  • 8-year-olds and younger should never be left unsupervised.
  • 9-year-olds can be left unsupervised for less than two hours during the daytime, but they shouldn’t be responsible for other children.
  • 10- to 11-year-olds can be left alone for longer periods of time, but not overnight or as a babysitter for younger children.
  • 12-year-olds may be ready for babysitting, but they should first take a child care class.
  • 15- to 17-year-olds can be at home alone overnight, but parents should still practice some caution before leaving. No child should be left home alone for any longer than one night, such as over a weekend.

Dr. Hanson emphasizes that parents know their children best and thus know what they may or may not be ready for.

“Parents should have an honest conversation with their child to get a good understanding of their maturity level and their ability to stay home alone,” Dr. Hanson said. “It’s a decision parents shouldn’t rush, but instead first practice to make sure their child is prepared and ready to stay home alone, even for a short period of time.”

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Posted In Children's, Coronavirus, Parenting, Wellness

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