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When is it okay to leave your child alone at home?

By Alice Bradley

If we have learned anything from the film classic “Home Alone,” it is that leaving a child by himself (accidentally or on purpose) for any period of time can result in all manner of shenanigans. Also, Joe Pesci will show up. However, at some point, the parent must make the leap and let her child (who should be at least a little older than HA-era Macauley Culkin) stay at home without a sitter.
But when, exactly, does that point arrive? I asked my mom, as she is wise in all matters. “Never,” she said. “Now go to your room, your sitter will be here in fifteen minutes.”

Let’s try that again. “Thirteen,” she replied, without hesitation.”Liar,” I responded. “You left me alone well before the age of thirteen.”
Turns out she doesn’t take kindly to being called a liar. Lesson learned. Eventually she copped to 12, and then 11, but she insisted that I was an incredibly mature young child, a fact I happen to know is also a (sorry, Mom) lie. I was a big baby. If the oven had suddenly caught fire I would have hid under my bed.

I suspect my mom crossed her fingers and hoped for the best. And luckily nothing did go terribly wrong at our house. Of course, don’t want to depend on luck, when it comes to their child’s safety. But at some point you have to make the leap, and too often it can feel like a leap of faith. An article in the Times this week highlighted the many variables that underlie this seemingly simple decision. How comfortable are your kids with the idea of being alone? Is there an older or younger sibling? Do you have a doorman, or do you live in a close-knit community?

Very few states specify what age a child can legally be left alone. Given that maturity and anxiety levels vary wildly by child, leaving it up to the parent seems, at first glance, reasonable. The states that do provide guidelines offer numbers as low as eight (Maryland and South Carolina) to as high as thirteen (Illinois). But what do they even mean by “alone”? After all, there’s “alone” in the sense of “I’m just going to run out for some milk while you watch cartoons” and “alone” in the sense of “Honey, we’re going to Antigua for a few weeks! Don’t forget to feed the fish, and also yourselves!” (The latter scenario has occurred more than once; in one infamous case, the vacationing parents lost custody of their children, who were 9 and 4 when they were left to fend for themselves for nine days. )

Most parents, of course, have their child’s best interests at heart—but even they too often leave their kids alone despite their own misgivings. According to a recent poll, many parents who leave their tweens home alone don’t feel certain that their kids are knowledgeable or skilled enough to stay safe. Which suggests that some parent/child conversations are in order—and maybe some training. Experts recommend that kids take the Red Cross babysitter course, even if the only child they’re babysitting is themselves.

The absence of state law on this topic ignores a growing problem: parents who have no choice but to leave their kids alone, even well before the children are ready. Too many parents can’t afford afterschool care and are forced to make an impossible choice: leave the children by themselves, or lose their jobs. According to Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, if states were to institute laws governing minimum ages for being left alone, “it would bring a hidden problem out in the open, which is all of the parents who leave children home alone not because they want to, but because they have to.” If there were laws in place, there would also need to be affordable afterschool programs to meet the needs of working parents. Without a law, no one has to make sure latch-key kids are safe—but of course states can and will hold the parents responsible if something goes wrong.

But even if you have a choice, dear readers, how do you decide when your child is ready to stay alone? What factors influence your decision?

Published August 15, 2008. Last updated September 20, 2012.
Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • Ariel

    August 15, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Well if you are my ex husband he’d say any age is okay if the kid is sleeping. Which is why he’s my ex husband and only has supervised visits.
    My Mom left us at home when my oldest sister was 10. I was 8. I was more mature at 8 than the older sister. I cooked, I changed diapers and didn’t think a thing about it. This was 20 years ago, however.
    But I don’t think I’ll leave my daughter until she’s at least 12, if then! I guess it will depend on her. And where we live. And I don’t think I’ll be letting her babysit by 12 either. Maybe 14…

  • suburbancorrespondent

    August 15, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Get this – I have a friend who will not leave her 13-year-old daughter home alone, but she will let her babysit other people’s kids. Go figure.
    Same friend worries about her son riding his bicycle places, but she got him his driver’s permit.
    So, if your mom seems a tad irrational on this subject, she probably has lots of company.
    As usual, there are too many variables to count: age of child, maturity of child, type of neighborhood, etc. Let’s just count on parent to use the common sense God gave them (and that got them to this point in raising their child) and make a decision that is right for them.

  • A

    August 15, 2008 at 11:08 am

    I agree with you on a number of points here – it is really quite a circumstantial case. It depends greatly on age, maturity level and situation. I think the first time I was allowed to babysit alone was when I was 13. My youngest brother would have been 2 or 3 at the time…he was usually put to bed before my parents left, however. I felt comfortable with the situation and my parents made sure of that.
    My sister is 13 and she only recently felt comfortable staying alone with our little sister who is 10. My younger sister felt comfortable since she was 8 or 9 staying by herself with my 13 yr old sister, or even all alone if it was for a short period of time (less than an hour.) We live in an apartment building which may have more of a safety element to it but then again we live in a safe neighbourhood.
    I think if the circumstances allow it and both you and your child feel comfortable with the situation, then try it out. Leave phone numbers or neighbours if you feel it is necessary or get them to check in if you are unable to. You can never be too safe, especially if the child is still young.
    In Ontario, we have to take a babysitting course as part of the cirriculum in the 6th grade (we are 11-12 at that point). I think it is a great tool for a child/young adult to have in order to assure themselves that they would know what to do in an emergency or in an unfamiliar situation.

  • Torrie

    August 15, 2008 at 11:28 am

    I think it all depends on the kid. I don’t think there is a magic number. My mother let me stay home alone for a few hours at a time at age 9. But, I was a very mature/responsible kid. I’m sure there are some 16 year olds who can’t be trusted to be home alone.
    My mother left me alone overnight for the first time when I was 15 or 16. I was a really good teenager though.

  • lizneust

    August 15, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    I think I was about 11 when my Mom first left us home. I have two younger brothers, and we’re all close in age. When I was 11, the youngest would have been 8 or 9. I think Mom relied a lot on the natural sibling instinct to tattle. Which worked well when we were younger (he threw a ball in the kitchen and broke a glass) than when we were older (don’t tell Mom and Dad that I drank/smoke/snuck out). Echoing what others have said, I think you have to watch your kids for their cues. Test runs are probably not a bad idea either. My kids are 2 and 4, so I’ve got a while before I need to worry about it, but I do know that if I ever have to travel overnight, there will be someone staying with them until they leave for college. I really don’t want my house to get wrecked by drunk teenagers. 🙂

  • Carrie

    August 15, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    I was 10 or 11 when I became a “latch-key” kid after school. But my mom made me call her at work when I got home, and then she got home less than 2 hours later. It seems crazy to me seeing kids that age now, but I was mature, knew what to do in an emergency, and never had a problem. Plus we lived in a very safe neighborhood.
    It depends on a lot of things, including safety of the neighborhood, proximity of other adults the child could access, difficulty to reach parents (a parent with a cell phone 5 minutes away is a lot safer than an unreachable parent), comfort of the child, maturity of the child. If the child’s normal behavior is to independently do appropriate activities alone they’re on the right track; if the child often pushes limits and needs closer supervision while the parent is home then the child is obviously not ready for being left alone.

  • kim

    August 18, 2008 at 1:51 am

    Granted that it was in the dark ages, but I was a very mature 11-year-old when I was first allowed to babysit alone. But that was a block away from home, it was only during daylight for a couple of hours at most, and I had gone through the babysitter training. I don’t remember how old I was when I was allowed to stay home alone though. I don’t think we were ever left home alone overnight before college though. I would’ve remembered that party! (Or maybe not!)
    My girls are 7 and 9, and are very responsible when it comes to safety, and half the time refuse to talk to adults we KNOW, let alone strangers, but I still feel weird leaving them alone even to go across the court to my parents’ house for more than a few minutes. Recently though, I have let them continue what they’re into while I run to the corner store (10 minutes or less) without asking my parents to look after them.
    Still, even though I know they’re safe, and my parents are right there if they need anything, I do find myself rushing in when I get back just to make sure. And of course Barbie is still performing gymnastic feats and Hannah Montana is still crooning. The worst I’ve found is yoghurt smears on the computer monitor, but that happens when I’m home.

  • Issa

    August 18, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    I think I was about nine, maybe ten but both of my brothers were there and the theory was, we’d not get kidnapped if together, because we were that annoying. It was also always in the afternoon and for short amounts of time.
    I’m gonna say twelve for my kids.

  • Momofmany

    August 18, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    As a parent of teenagers, I’ve discovered that by the time they’re reasonably old enough to stay home alone, it’s the worst idea to leave them home alone…

  • me

    August 19, 2008 at 7:01 am

    I’m from the UK, so a little bit of a different view point.
    I wasn’t left ‘alone’ until I was about 14 years old…but there was always an aunt, uncle or grandparent dropping round as our house has always been a busy one.
    At just turned 16, I’ve never been left alone over-night yet my parents don’t bother as much at leaving me for periods throughout the day.
    Having an older silbling helped, she’s 3 1/2 years older so we were never alone until she moved to university 18 months back.
    As for whether or not I want to be left alone, sometimes I do, others I’d rather not.
    I’m pretty sure the UK recommends 15 years as the minimum for allowing children to be left at home unsupervised.
    As for when I have kids, it’ll probably be around the same age as me. I won’t let them babysit until they’re 15 – I just don’t think any child is mature enough to care for another human being under that age. I did it a few times but was always warey that something was going to go wrong – even now, though I’m more confident – I feel I’d totally freak if an accident occured.

  • t

    August 19, 2008 at 8:56 am

    I’m a single mom of 3 (10, 8 and 6). They went to camp for 6 weeks but after that started getting expensive, they’re staying at home. They’ve stayed at home for winter and spring break. They call (cellphone) once they’re off the bus and when they get in the house after school. You have to know your kids’ capabilities and and you have to LAY DOWN the rules and stick by them. They know what I expect and I call several times throughout the day to make sure everything is alright.

  • Katie

    August 19, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    The last part of the post really struck me. This is the choice we have? Legislation or unaffordable after school care? Why can’t we let PARENTS decide when their kids are old enough to stay home by themselves AND have affordable afterschool care for the kids who aren’t? Why is quality, affordable childcare for working families so damn elusive in this country? Why do we have to have a law before we can have help?
    I guess the “infamous case” you referenced kind of answers that question, but I still think the majority of parents are not insane and can make good decisions. They should be allowed to do so AND have options available that won’t force them to choose between the safety of their children and a paycheck. GOD.
    Sorry. This issue is just buggin’ this week.
    What were you talking about? Oh, yeah. When are kids old enough to get their Culkin on?
    I have a vivid memory involving some frozen french fries, a flaming pan of hot oil and being home alone. I was not old enough. Or smart enough, apparently. I think I was 11.
    So, my vote is older than 11.

  • Lee

    August 19, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    This is really an extension of the Free-Range Child thing isn’t it?
    One daughter preferred company until she was 12, and now revels in a house to herself. The youngest requested to be excused from Tuesday afternoon activities that required a lot of driving, and is now perfectly happy on her own for the afternoon. It certainly helps that we have a great neighborhood, with several people they can go to in emergencies. I check in to see how things are going.
    Right now, they won’t set things on fire, and they haven’t started experimenting with drinks – post-10 and pre-16 seems like an ideal time.

  • SarraJK

    August 19, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I recall being left alone when I was 7. We lived in a duplex and the downstairs neighbors were home. I think I ended up going to hang out with them for a while, but I remember being ok with being alone.
    My son’s only 3, but I have had the 9 year old neighbor kid come babysit a couple times when her parents are home and my son’s already in bed. Basically she watches TV until we get home. No actual child care is involved, and her parents are available if anything actually happened.
    I think how old he’ll need to be to stay home alone will depend on how mature my son is when he gets older. Also, I don’t know what the law is in our state, but I’d hate to lose my kid over this sort of thing.

  • Anonymous

    August 19, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    This is a fun conversation. I was left to my own devices quite a bit while growing up. My mom was a single parent who had to work, and she was/is a workaholic. I got kicked out of the after school program because she would always be late picking me up, sometimes hours late. At nine or so I was a latchkey kid. With ADHD. I don’t know how the house didn’t burn down with all the craziness/experiments with cooking/trying to make a helicopter from household appliance parts that went on. Then when I was a wild and crazy teenager, my mom would leave for weeks at a time to go on business trips. I really grew up with little to no discipline, but I certainly learned to be independent. I kept the house clean, went to school, did my homework, cooked sensible meals, and then got drunk/smoked pot and stayed out til 3am with boys I’d just met. Then go to school the next day and do it all again. Certainly prepared me for college, haha.
    Having been a wild child myself, I won’t be surprised if my children are like me, which is kind of frightening to think about. I will probably try to foster some independence and responsibility for themselves in a more controlled way. I don’t want my 12 and 15 year old to have no idea what to do about dog diarrhea on the floor (like in the NYT article), that seems entirely too helpless for that age. Then again, I don’t want my kids to grow up like me.

  • Snappymom

    August 28, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    My daughter is 11, and my oldest son is 8. I will leave them alone for no more than an hour while I run to the store with the baby. I was nine when my mom started leaving me home alone, no cooking allowed. In the apartment complex we used to live in, kids of all ages were left alone. The older/bigger ones tormented the smaller ones, and there was no one to go to when it got out of hand. It was like Lord of the Flies. I just think it depends on the kid, and the parents comfort level, and the parent needs to listen to how he/she feels not just be all I HAVE TO GO TO WORK. Even though I think my kids are awesome, and would never burn the house down or kill each other, It’s gonna be a couple more years before they are home for a significant amount of time by themselves.

  • Jess

    August 28, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    My single mother started leaving me home alone during the summer while she worked when I was eight, although my grandmother lived a few doors down and could stop by if I needed something. I was an only child, though, and very responsible at that, and nothing bad ever happened. I’m pretty sure it’s because of this that I’ve always been very self-reliant and independent.
    It really depends on the child, though, and on the parent’s comfort level. I get nervous if my eight-year-old stepson is alone downstairs in the living room if I’m upstairs in the bathroom…

  • Michelle

    July 20, 2009 at 9:26 am

    My son is 10 yrs old! I’m pretty confident about him staying home for a few hours alone. He has a cell phone and also his father and I. We also have two german sheperds that are totally devoted to our children! He knows the rules and for the most part sticks to them. The only problem is my mother-in-law disagrees! We went shopping the other night and were going to be a little late getting home, we called to check on him several times and he was fine, my mother in law insisted that this was wrong, and she went to our house right away!!! I hate to argue or have confrontations, however he is my son and i would never put him in a harmful situation!!!