At a recent neighborhood barbecue, a mom raised the question: “What is the right age for a child to stay at home alone?” This mom had two children ages 7 and 9, and wanted to leave them home alone to exercise in the morning for one hour while they were still sleeping. Of course, this question raised all kinds of comments and a wide range of opinions. As the social worker at the table, everyone looked at me for the “correct” answer. The fact is, there isn’t an exact age when a child is ready. The laws in New Jersey do not specify an age when a child is considered old enough to stay home alone. The National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left at home alone; however, parents must make an individual decision based on many factors, including the child’s age and maturity level. All children are not the same. Some 12-year-olds may be ready to stay home alone, but not all will be.
To determine if they may be ready, consider the following: how is your child at handling emergencies, following instructions, and behaving appropriately? Do you still feel the need to check on him/her or to re-direct his/her behavior? If so, then s/he may not be ready to be left on their own. Also, how does your child feel about being left alone? If they seem worried or frightened then they just aren’t ready yet. Keep in mind that even if you feel they may be able to handle staying home alone, it doesn’t mean they can take care of a younger sibling. That requires additional responsibilities that your child may not be ready for yet.
Before you take the big step of leaving your child alone, make sure you review with your child what to do in case of an emergency. Practice with your child a variety of “What would you do if…?” scenarios to make sure they understand how to handle different situations. Discuss your expectations regarding what is allowed while you are away – can they watch TV, use the computer, answer the phone, have friends over…?
Other things to consider when deciding if your child is ready to be left alone is where you live. Are there neighbors nearby you know and trust to help your child in case of an emergency? Do you live on a busy street with lots of traffic? Is there a lot of crime? You and your child need to feel that the surroundings are safe.
Before you leave your child alone for extended periods of time, take a trial run. See how they handle being left alone for 15-20 minutes while you run to the store or pick up a sibling. Start out during the day. If they are able to handle this, then you can gradually leave them alone for longer periods of time.
When you are ready to leave your child alone make sure you leave emergency numbers (doctor, ambulance, fire department, etc.) in a place where they can see them and easily locate, such as on the refrigerator or by the phone. Always leave a phone number (land and cell) where you can be reached, as well as an emergency contact such as a relative or neighbor in case your cell fails or they can’t reach you. Call home frequently to check on your child.
While I do admit I sometimes dream of the day when I’ll no longer have to pay a babysitter, I know those days will come soon enough! Children grow up quickly so enjoy the time you have with them now.
For additional guidelines and things to consider in making this difficult decision, download a copy of the PCA-NJ “Is My Child Ready to Stay Home Alone?” (PDF) tip sheet.