Learn how to know when your kids are responsible enough to stay home by themselves.
Parents of young kids often wonder when their child will be old enough to stay home alone. You’d think there would be a hard-and-fast rule, but actually that’s not the case. While Oregon’s legal code does offer guidance, ultimately, determining when a child is mature enough to be unsupervised at home is a decision left up to parents. Learn more about what the law, doctors, and other parents say about leaving kids home alone, and how to know when your child is ready.
Of course, it’s clear that babies, toddlers, and preschoolers need robust, hands-on care and generally older teens can be trusted to watch themselves. But figuring out exactly when a kid goes from needing a parent or caregiver 24/7 to being able to take care of themselves for a few minutes or hours at a time, is where it can get tricky.
“Experts recommend that your individual child should show readiness in terms of safety, independence and judgment and that this is typically closer to 12 years of age, but may be younger or older in some cases,” says Benjamin Sanders, M.D., M.S.P.H., M.S., assistant professor of general pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University. (Read his tips below.)
According to Clackamas County, there is no specific age provided by law. But there is a law that gives a minimum age guideline.
Essentially, that is a minimum of 10 years old. However, Oregon’s child neglect law (ORS 163.545) stipulates that it is neglectful to leave a child under 10 “unattended at any place for such period of time as may be likely to endanger the health or welfare of such child.”
So, even that is not definitive, as some 8 or 9 year olds may do fine at home alone for 20 to 30 minutes while other 12 year olds may not. The truth is that like other developmental skills, your child may be ready a bit sooner or later than average.
Portland mom of three, Katie Sevigny, says that maturity came at different times for each of her children. “We started out small, running out for a quick walk or trip to the store to test the waters,” she says. Her youngest, who is now 11, is comfortable staying home for several hours during the day, but Sevigny says he’s not yet accustomed to more than short periods at night.
Federal law also leaves this decision to parents. According to the United States Children’s Bureau: “There is no agreed-upon age when a child can stay home alone safely. Because children mature at different rates, you should not base your decision on age alone.”
Additionally, factors that may influence your child’s readiness include how well they follow guidelines and boundaries, how comfortable they are with asking for help when needed, how accessible support is if needed, their personality, and how safe they feel. Having access to a phone also boosts the comfort level for many families.
“We always still have a home phone,” says Sevigny, “because then we know they can always contact us.”
Sanders says to be mindful of your family’s surroundings. Do you live in a safe neighborhood with supportive and responsible neighbors? “Also, consider the risk inherent in your home,” he says. “Could your child have access to alcohol, prescription medications or unsecured guns at home?”
Sheryl Mansberger says she knew her twins were ready to stay home alone when they could “help with chores, feed their dog, call 911, lock doors, set an alarm on their Apple watch — and (they) were 10 years old!” They also have each other to rely on, she adds.
Children with siblings may feel more comfortable earlier since they won’t be alone, but unless they are close in age, another factor to consider is the responsibility of not only asking them to take care of themselves, but also a younger sibling.
How to know when your child is ready
When you feel your child is ready, begin by leaving them home alone for short periods, say while you take the dog on a walk or run a quick errand.
“Start by deciding what you mean by ‘stay at home,’” says Sanders. “Two hours in the afternoon is different from, say four or more hours. On a similar note, being alone at home with you available by phone and able to come home within 15 to 20 minutes in the case of an emergency is different from being alone without an ability to talk to you or have you come home if necessary.”
Then, if that goes well, you can increase the length of time that you’re gone. It can increase everybody’s comfort level if there are neighbors your kids can call or run to in case of an emergency, adds Sevigny.
Start out leaving in the daytime, progressing to leaving them at night once they’re ready. Additionally, always feel free to dial back the time if it seems to be too much for your child. For example, if they were worried or stressed in your absence, made a mess, or got into things they should not have.
The bottomline is that it’s your responsibility as a parent to decide when your child is ready to stay home alone. So, step back, assess your child’s responsibility, maturity, and comfort level, and then trust your judgment to make the right decision for your family.
Steps to Prep Your Child for Staying Home Alone
Sanders makes these additional suggestions for things parents can do to help their child prepare for staying home alone:
- Review safety scenarios with your child.
- Inform trusted neighbors and share phone numbers.
- Review how to ask for help.
- Let your child know what to expect from you, and then meet those expectations or let them know if your plans must change.
- If you’re relying on cell phones, be sure to keep your phone charged and stay in an area with good service.
- Gradually increase your child’s chances to be at home alone.
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