Only 3 states have legal stipulations regarding when a child can be left home alone. In Illinois, Oregon, and Maryland, the ages are 14, 10, and 8. These are massive disparities, and offer no real guidance for how to know if your child is ready. Children develop differently, and one 8 year old is not the same as another.
It is important to note that a lot of recommendations state that children should be at least 12 before being left home alone, but not every 12 year old is ready once their birthday rolls around. The department of Child Welfare (childwelfare.gov) has some recommendations for making the decision with your child. In addition to knowing legal guidelines and professional recommendations, they have a breakdown of some questions to ask regarding age/maturity, circumstances, and safety skills. Here are just a few of the questions they recommend asking:
- How long will your child be left home alone at one time?
- Does your child know his or her full name, address, and phone number?
- How many children are being left home alone? Children who seem ready to stay home alone may not necessarily be ready to care for younger siblings.
- Does your child know the full names and contact information of other trusted adults, in case of emergency?
- Does your child know what to do if a visitor comes to the door?
- Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
If you feel your child is ready to stay home by themselves, here are some tips for how to begin the transition process.
- Talk about emergencies, and what to do in case of emergency. What does your child consider an emergency? Make sure they know who to call in case something happens.
- Have a trial period. This could be as short as a few minutes, depending on how your child/children feel(s) about being left home alone. Stay nearby in case they need you to come home immediately.
- Call to check in regularly the first several times. Alternately, have a trusted neighbor or friend check in. Make sure your child knows who will be checking in and how.
- Role play beforehand. Come up with several situations your child may be faced with, and work out how they should respond.
- Most of all, talk openly about how your child feels about being home alone. Encourage them to share their feelings, and share yours. If you are nervous, let them know, but also let them know that you trust them to make good decisions.
For more information, check out the Child Welfare site listed above, as well as these sites from Ohio State University, KidsHealth.org, and HealthyChildren.org.