Leave the Kids Home Alone? What the Law Says and Questions to Consider
It doesn’t happen often.
The kids are contentedly playing in the next room, and you’re channeling the Barefoot Contessa as you listen to your favorite podcast in the kitchen. For the moment — all is calm.
As you finish your dinner time masterpiece, your eyes fall to the last and most important ingredient in the recipe. You pause. You don’t remember picking that up at the store. A thorough search in the pantry confirms your suspicions. The remedy? A swift trip to the store.
Oh, but the kids are happily engaged. Maybe, just maybe, you could leave them alone for 20-minutes?
If you’ve found yourself in situations like this one, your kids may be ready to stay home alone—but you want to get it right and set them up to succeed. Before heading out solo, know what the law says and assess your child’s readiness with these questions.
What are your state’s laws?
Most states in the U.S. don’t have specific laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home. But if you live in these three states, the law is pretty clear:
- Illinois, fourteen years old;
- Maryland, eight years old; and
- Oregon, ten years old.
7 & Under – Should not be left alone for any period. This includes leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards.
8 to 10 Years – Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.
11 to 12 Years – May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring adult responsibilities.
13 to 15 Years – May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.
16 to 17 Years – May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).
If your state has a minimum age requirement, you need to follow the law. If not, you’ll want to consider these general age guidelines, but also consider your child. You are the expert on your child and age doesn’t always equal maturity.
Do you know and trust your neighbors?
Whether you live in a high-rise apartment or a suburban neighborhood, neighbors are an essential piece of the home alone puzzle.
Trusted neighbors provide a safety net not only in the event of an emergency but also calm first-time jitters in both your or your child. It can be helpful to let your neighbors know that you’ll be periodically leaving your child alone and ask them if they’d be willing to serve as an emergency contact for your child should a need arise.
If you live in a rural area and don’t have neighbors nearby, you may want to wait until your child is a bit older or identify a trusted adult to be on standby every time you leave them home alone.
Do you see signs of readiness?
With a few questions, you may be able to predict your child’s readiness to stay home alone accurately:
- If you’re inside and your child is outside, does he or she let you know if they need help or someone is hurt? If so, this is a great sign your child can assess various situations and know when to seek the help of an adult.
- When you chat on the phone with a friend for a half-hour or so, is your child able to play contentedly without needing you? The ability for your son or daughter to entertain themselves for short periods (without getting into trouble) is a positive sign they may be ready to stay home alone.
- Does your child show a healthy respect for items in your home that potentially could be dangerous such as appliances, fireplaces, and electronics? A yes to this question gives reasonable assurance your child will maintain a safe distance while you’re gone.
Not to forget: If you have firearms in the home, it’s critical for gun safety rules to be in place. Always make sure they are locked and out of sight. It’s also a good idea to store firearms and ammunition in separate locations.
Tips for Success
If your state permits, if you have trusted neighbors, and if you see signs of readiness in your child, it may be time for a trial run. Here are a few more tips for setting both you and your child up for success.
- Talk about it before you do it. Let your child in on the conversation and ask for their input about staying home alone. Follow their lead and table the whole idea if they show signs of anxiety.
- Start small. The first time you leave, return within 20-30 minutes (just enough time to run to the store and grab that forgotten recipe ingredient). Celebrate the small victory and assess how it went from your child’s perspective.
- Create a plan (just in case of an emergency). If you don’t have a landline, your child will need a way to get in touch with you and nearby neighbors. Ask your neighbors if they mind being an emergency contact for your child and add them as contacts in your child’s phone. Make sure your child knows their neighbors’ first and last names in case they need to find them in the contact list.
- Prepare them for the unexpected. If a delivery man comes to the door, do you want them to open it? What about a neighborhood friend coming to see if they can play? Thinking through these types of situations will help your child know how to respond if they occur.
Not to forget: Teach your child how to dial 9-1-1 and make sure they know their home address. If they can’t quite master that information, it’s a good idea to postpone leaving them home alone.
A Taste of Freedom
Leaving your child home alone for the first time is both scary and wonderful. But with a little research about your state, a friendly chat with your neighbors, and an intentional conversation with your child, the new experience can be a taste of freedom for both you—and your child.