What Age Can a Child Stay Home Alone? 4 Questions to Consider

Little Boy excited he's home alone

It’s a question every parent asks themselves—when is it ok to leave my child at home alone? Whether you and your spouse just want to enjoy a date night or you’re hoping for a quick kid-free trip to the grocery store, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions before you head off without your kid.

Here are 4 questions to consider before waving good-bye:

1. What does the law say?

This is the first question parents want to know—at what age is it LEGAL to leave my kids at home? While it’s important to understand what the law says, the truth is many states don’t have a legal limit.

Many lawmakers understand that a child’s maturity—not age—is a more accurate criteria to determine whether or not a child can be left at home alone.

So while we should most definitely take into account the state’s legal guidelines, be sure to consider all 4 questions on this list to make your final decision.

As it stands, only 3 states have a legal age limit for leaving kids at home, while 10 others have an age “guideline.” The reality is, if a child is reported to be unattended, local Child Welfare Services will be the ones to determine whether that child was left inappropriately—even if there isn’t a strict law in place.

Here’s a list of the states with published laws and guidelines:

State
Legal Age to be Left Alone
Illinois 14
Maryland 8
North Carolina 8

State
Minimum Age Guideline
Colorado 12
Delaware 12
Georgia 8
Kansas 6
Michigan 10
Nebraska 6
North Dakota 9
Oregon 10
Tennessee 10
Washington 10

Note for Military Families: If you live on a U.S. military installation, there is most likely published regulations outlining the ages at which your child can be left unattended, (like these guidelines from Fort Bragg) so be sure to check with base personnel to get the most accurate information for your community.

While these laws and regulations serve as a helpful resource, one thing is certain: there is a lot of inconsistency. This wide range of laws and guidelines only confirms that age is not the best indicator of maturity or readiness to stay at home.

To make an informed decision for your family, let’s dive into the other 3 questions.

2. What signs does your child show that indicate they are ready for the responsibility?

Think for a minute about your child’s overall sense of judgment.

  • Do they willingly follow house rules without reminders?
  • Do they generally make good decisions and understand the consequences of poor decisions?
  • Do they demonstrate good impulse control?
  • Are they problem solvers?
  • Can they follow a set routine?
  • Are they generally aware of their surroundings or do they have tunnel vision at times?

Leaving a child at home is a big deal and it needs to be a good decision for all parties involved.

Does your child WANT to stay at home alone? If your child struggles with fear, anxiety, nightmares, etc., staying at home alone might not something they’d like to do (even if their peers want to).

By answering the questions above honestly, you can have a good sense if your child is ready for this type of responsibility. And, if they aren’t, you can identify areas for growth and make a plan to help your child demonstrate mature behaviors for the future.

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3. What skills does your child need before being left home alone for the first time?

Once you’ve determined that your child is behaviorally mature enough to be left alone, it’s time to make sure they have the appropriate skills required to function on their own.

The beauty of preparing a child to stay home alone is that you’re simultaneously giving them the skills to be a competent, responsible, and capable adult—sounds like a win-win, right?!

Take a look at this list and see if your child has the necessary skills to fly solo in your house.

Does your child…

  • Know how to make his own snack?
  • Know who to call in an emergency?
  • Know basic first-aid and where the first-aid kit is located?
  • Know where the fire extinguisher is located and how to use it?
  • Know his full name, address, and 2 phone numbers of emergency contacts?
  • Know his parents’ full names?
  • Know how and when to call 911 and what information to give the dispatcher?
  • Know how to operate the microwave?
  • Know how to lock and secure doors?
  • Know what to do if someone comes to the door?

If you can confidently say “yes,” to each of the above questions, that’s a good sign your child is prepared to function at home for a short period of time without you.

Still not sure if your child has the appropriate skills? Just keep training. By equipping your child with these skills, you’ll not only prepare him to stay home alone but empower him to be a more capable and confident human.

4. Is it better to leave an only child home alone or is it better if there are siblings?

This question can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, but there are a few guidelines to consider when determining whether or not it’s best to leave siblings at home together.

First of all, just because a child possesses the skills and behaviors described above to stay safely at home, doesn’t mean they’d be as successful with a sibling around.

Think of “adding a sibling” as “adding another ball to juggle.” Sure, as individuals, they can take care of themselves, but when given a new distraction or a new task to manage, can they do both?

Furthermore, if sibling rivalry plagues your household, then leaving the kiddos at home together probably isn’t the best choice.

Either way, here are a few thoughts to consider before you decide if they’re better together or better apart…

  • How long do you plan on being gone?
  • What are the ages of the kids?
  • Can they work collaboratively without one child “taking charge”?
  • Have they consistently modeled appropriate behavior with each other?
  • Do they use appropriate conflict-resolution tools?

As with everything in parenting, this takes time. It’s important to ensure your child feels confident when staying home alone by themselves before you add a sibling to the mix.

PRO TIP for leaving siblings home together: Don’t put one in charge of the others—that’s a recipe for sibling competition and resentment. Instead, give each child a specific task—one is in charge of making lunch, ones’ in charge of cleaning up, the other selects the movie, etc. That way they are working as a team for the success of the afternoon while mom is away.

Action Plan for Leaving Kids at Home

Alright, my friend, after much consideration you’ve decided to spread your wings and leave your baby at the nest for a short period of time. Now what?

It’s time to do a little test run. For your first time away, don’t plan on being gone for longer than 2 hours.

Before you leave, make sure any and all hazards are locked up. No matter how much you trust your child, you’ll have greater peace of mind knowing you’ve left them in a safe environment. Here are just a few items to be sure you’ve secured:

  • Guns
  • Alcohol
  • Medications
  • Knives

Next, it’s time to run through some scenarios. Does your child know what to do if:

  • there’s a small fire in the kitchen?
  • the smoke alarm goes off?
  • there’s a tornado or other severe weather?
  • a stranger comes to the door?
  • someone calls for a parent who isn’t home?
  • there’s a power outage?

Lastly, lay out some simple ground rules and have them posted for a reminder.

  • No friends allowed over
  • Don’t open the door for anyone
  • No stovetop cooking
  • Complete family contributions
  • Never tell anyone you’re home alone—even friends—and don’t post on social media
  • Finish homework before technology/TV time
  • If there’s an emergency, call 911 FIRST, and then a parent
  • Don’t leave the house.

Final Thoughts

I get it—there are a lot of factors to consider when you leave your kids at home. The last thing you want is them to reenact Macaulay Culkin’s performance in the classic movie, Home Alone.  

If you’re feeling a little wary about your child’s readiness, I’d love to help you get there. The Positive Parenting strategies I teach actually bolster a child’s capabilities, so you can prepare them to take on these solo responsibilities.

If you’re not sure where to start, I’d love for you to JOIN ME FOR A FREE ONLINE CLASS (at a time that’s convenient for you)!

In one hour, I’ll teach you how to get your kids to listen—no nagging, yelling, or reminding required.

By empowering your children to take on more responsibilities around the house, you’ll increase their capabilities and readiness to stay home. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Title image: Zurijeta / Shutterstock https://www.shutterstock.com/photos

About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.