The later elementary years in a child’s life can be so awkward. Kids this age are caught somewhere between a child and an adult. Their work at this age is to start putting aside their childish ways and move towards becoming more adult-like.
With that work, they have more responsibilities than their younger years, and also more freedom. They get more homework at school, more classwork, and harder assignments. They also are now allowed to roam the halls on their own, rather than walk single file in a straight line, with their teacher, from point A to point B. At home, they receive more chores and are expected to help out the family more. But they also receive later bedtimes and can start staying home alone.
With all of these new freedoms and responsibilities on your middle-schooler, how do you know when he/she is old enough, or ready, to stay home alone?
If you are looking for a “golden age” that children need to be, to be allowed to stay home alone, then please, stop searching. There is none. “Only a couple of states have laws that specify the age when a child can be left home alone, including Maryland (age 8) and Illinois (age 14).” (FindLaw.com) If you are looking for some general guidelines, though, you can check out your state Department of Health and Human Services web page or contact your county social services agency. Most states have general guidelines for what ages kids should be to be allowed to stay home alone, and for the ages of babysitters.
In Minnesota, the Department of Human Services has written guidelines as follows:
• Children age 7 and under should not be left alone, anywhere, for any period of time.
• Children ages 8-10 may be left alone for up to three hours. FindLaw.com is a little more restrictive, stating that children this age “should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.”
• Children ages 11-13 may be left alone for up to 12 hours. FindLaw.com suggests that children, aged 11-12, “may be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.”
• Children ages 14-15 may be left alone for up to 24 hours. FindLaw.com states these children “may be left unsupervised, but not overnight.”
• Children ages 16-17 may be left alone for over 24 hours with a plan in place concerning how to respond to an emergency. (Huh. My big boys will be thrilled to hear that!)
Most daycares offer childcare up to age 12. There’s a reason they do that – most county social service agencies “recommend that children under 12 years of age not be left home alone.” (Childcare Aware)
Of course, there are other factors, besides age, to consider, as well. You need to assess the maturity level of your child. Every child is different, despite his or her age. My second oldest child was far more mature, at age 11, than my 11-year-old is right now. Personality and maturity make a difference.
When thinking about the maturity level of your child, keep these things in mind:
- Is your child responsible? Trustworthy?
- Can your child create his own meal safely?
- Can your child use the phone, in case of an emergency?
- Will your child complete all the chores given to him/her?
- Can you trust your child to follow general household rules, even when no one is home?
- Can your child safely entertain himself?
- Does your child scare or startle easily?
- Will your child remain calm during an emergency?
- Would your child know what to do during an emergency? (i.e., he gets hurt or there is bad weather, etc.)
- Will your child check in with you periodically?
- Does your child have common sense?
Is your home safe and ready for a child to be left alone?
- Are guns and bullets kept separately and locked up?
- Alcohol is out of reach or locked up?
- Medicines, chemicals and cleaners are in their original bottles and/or labeled appropriately?
- Smoke detectors are installed in all bedrooms and on every level in the home, and working appropriately?
- Your home has a fire extinguisher and first aide kit, and your child knows how to use both?
- Your child knows how to properly use the microwave, toaster and oven?
- An emergency phone number list is left by the phone?
- Your child knows how to operate the home security system, if one is installed?
- Your child knows where the flash lights, candles and matches are, in case of a power outage, and knows how to light a candle, if needed?
There are a few resources available for parents contemplating leaving their child home alone for the first time.
Child Care Aware provides a Home Alone Checklist to determine whether your child is physically and emotionally ready to be left home alone for any period of time.
The University of Minnesota Extension website has a webpage that focuses on a child’s physical and emotional readiness for being left home alone.
And finally, at the national level, the Child Welfare Information Gateway has a factsheet from 2013 providing guidance on leaving your child home alone.
There is no perfect way to tell if a child is ready to be left home alone. If you feel your child is ready, do some practice runs. I always started out leaving my boys home alone for only a half hour at a time. I would make sure there were neighbors near by and Grandmas or Aunties who were able to be reached by phone in case of an emergency. I would be sure to be within my normal, regular daily routine as well, i.e., at work, running errands, etc. You don’t want to let your child stay home alone for the first time if you are away on a business trip.
If your child does well with short, little intervals, then slowly start increasing the amount of time he can be left home alone. If he starts to struggle or panic, back off. He’s not ready yet. I have an 11 year old who will text me and ask if he can eat supper, and what can he eat for that supper. If I don’t answer, he won’t eat. Clearly, he is not ready to be left home alone for any significant amount of time. Kids need to be able to think independently and make some decisions for themselves.
Ok, so your child has successfully mastered staying home alone for any given period of time. Is she ready to babysit?
The Minnesota Department of Human Services has provided guidelines for what is considered appropriate ages for babysitting:
• Children under age 11 should not provide child care.
• Children ages 11-15 who are babysitting are subject to the same time restrictions as being left home alone (listed above).
• Children ages 16-17 may babysit for more than 24 hours with adequate adult back-up supervision.
Again, you need to assess the maturity level of your child, if she is babysitting, or of your babysitter, if you are hiring one. If the babysitter passes the maturity level test, then you need to take a look at the child(ren) being cared for. What are the ages of the children? Are they close in age? Are there twins or triplets? How many children are being cared for? Do they have any special needs? Is there anything about caring for these children that may be difficult or challenging? If so, can the babysitter handle those challenges? Is more than one babysitter needed?
Caring for children and leaving children home alone is not a cut and dry situation. If you have any questions or concerns at all, contact your local social services agency. Each county has one. There will be a child protection worker at that agency that can tell you what the guidelines are for where you live. If you need help in assessing whether or not your child is ready, the child protection worker can help you with that as well.
(Photo from Pinterest.com)