I think most parents have found themselves at some point in the situation of wondering if they should leave their child at home. Maybe you needed to nip out for an errand or your child didn’t want to go with you somewhere. Deciding if your child is ready to be left home alone can be a tricky decision. But do you know the legal facts and have you considered if your child is actually ready to be left home alone? Here is some advice and information for parents about at what age can kids stay home alone:
Some legal information by country
In the USA
In the United States, only three States currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone.
- Illinois law requires children to be 14 years old before being left alone;
- in Maryland, the minimum age is 8;
- in Oregon, children must be 10 before being left home alone.
This information booklet from the Child Welfare Information Gateway is really useful with lots of tips and advice in it.
In the UK
In the United Kingdom, there’s no set age for leaving children home alone. The law simply says that you shouldn’t leave a child alone if they’ll be at risk. That’s not to say that there are no laws on leaving children home alone.
Under the Children and Young Persons (England and Wales) Act 1933, the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937 and the Children and Young Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1968, parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect. This means that they can be fined or sent to prison if they are judged to have placed a child at risk of harm by leaving them at home alone, regardless of where in the UK the child lives.
The NSPCC has published a very good guide to keeping your child safe.
There’s no one law in Australia saying at what age you can or can’t leave your child home alone. In Queensland if you leave a child under 12 years of age for an ‘unreasonable time’ without supervision you have committed a misdemeanour. However, the legislation also says that whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.
Elsewhere in Australia, the law says you’re legally obliged to make sure that your child is properly looked after. You’re expected to provide food, clothing, a place to live, safety and supervision. You can be charged with an offence if your child is left in a dangerous situation, not fed, clothed or provided with accommodation.
In Ireland there is no legal age for when it is acceptable to leave children home alone. We asked the ISPCC and they said they would certainly like to see some clarity around this. However it is clear that should a parent knowingly place their child at risk, and in some cases leaving a young child home alone would constitute risk, then this would be classed as neglect.
They advise that parents are the ones who know their children best and maturity levels can be much more telling than age. Maturity and a young person’s ability to cope with the unexpected are factors to consider when deciding if it is appropriate to leave your child home alone. Children should not be left alone overnight and, in the ISPCC’s view, children certainly shouldn’t be left to care for younger siblings.
Tips and advice on leaving your child home alone
There are lots of things to think about. Legalities aside, there are no hard and fast ‘home alone’ rules because every child is different. It depends on how mature and adaptable your child is as to whether they and you feel comfortable with the idea of them being home alone.
Things to think about:
- How long is it intended that the child stays alone? Is my child happy to be left alone for this period of time?
- Does my child understand not to answer the door/phone etc.?
- Does my child know how to use the telephone? Does my child know important information such as phone numbers? Are contact phone numbers in an easy to find spot for them?
- Does my child know what to do in the case of an emergency? For example, what if there’s a power cut? Or you’re out for longer than you thought?
- How do they behave in other situations? Do they follow your instructions at home? Are they responsible and mature uat school?
- How would they cope with unexpected scenarios? What would they do if there’s a stranger knocking at the door?
- What if they are hungry and need to get something to eat?
Try running through a few different scenarios. Ask your child what they would do. Would they feel anxious or stressed? Talk to your child regularly about these things in a way that’s right for their age. By having these conversations, you’ll soon get an idea of how they would cope.
It’s really important to find out how your child feels about being home alone. Listen to any worries they have and ask what could put them at ease. For example, my daughters and I have discussed which neighbours they would feel comfortable asking for help from if I didn’t come back as planned.
If you’ve talked to your child about staying home alone and both of you think they’re ready, make some final checks. It can help put both your minds at ease. Remember – you should never leave a child home alone if they’re unhappy to be left.
A few safety checks:
- Are fire alarms, locks and windows working?
- Is there a spare set of keys?
- Is there anything stopping your child from getting food or using the bathroom?
- Is there anything around that could injure or hurt your child?
- Does your child have a way of contacting you?
- Who lives nearby who they trust and could contact for help?
- What can you do to reduce any risks? (Think about where things like sharp knives, alcohol and medicine are kept.)
If you have determined they are ready:
Once you have determined that your child is ready to stay home alone, these may help prepare your child to feel more comfortable about being left alone:
- Have a trial run. Leave them home alone for a short time while staying close to home. This is a good way to see how he or she will manage.
- Discuss what to do if an emergency happens. Ask your child what they consider an emergency? Have a code word that the parent and child can use in the event of any emergency.
- Check in while you are away. Call your child while you are away to see how it’s going, or if you have a trusted family member, friend or neighbor that you can ask to check in too.
- Set ground rules. Make sure your child knows what is (and is not) allowed when you are not home. You might want to set screen time limits and make a list of chores or other tasks to keep your child busy while you are away.
- Have some food organised. Leave out some snacks and make sure they know where they can get a drink.
- Decide what to do about pets. It’s enough for your child to look after themselves so don’t place extra responsibility for pets unless they are definitely old enough and mature enough to look after them too. So, for example, you may agree that the dog stays in his crate or space until you get back.
- Do some role play. Act out some possible situations to help your child learn what to do such as how to manage visitors who come to the door, or how to answer phone calls in a way that doesn’t reveal that a parent is not at home.
- Talk about it. Encourage your child to share his or her feelings with you about staying home alone. Have this conversation before leaving your child and then, when you return, talk with your child about his or her experiences and feelings while you were away. This is particularly important when your child is first beginning to stay home alone, but a quick check-in is always helpful after being away.
- Don’t overdo it. Even a mature, responsible child shouldn’t be home alone too much. If it’s going to be a regular occurence look at other options like programmes offered by schools, community groups, or even swap some childcare with another parent to help them out when they need in return.
Over to you now. What’s your experience of leaving your child home alone? Any tips you can share in the comments below for other parents?