It is bound to happen: One day, your child will announce he is ready to come home to an empty house—or stay home alone for a couple of hours. Here, Heather Felton, MD, FAAP, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of Louisville, shares how to be sure you and your child are ready to take that next big step toward independence.
My child, who is 9, has expressed interest in staying home alone for short periods when it’s light out. At what age are kids generally capable of staying at home during the day without supervision?
There is no one fixed age that works for everyone. Children mature at different rates and with varying degrees of confidence, plus each opportunity to stay home differs in length of time. To gauge whether your son is up to task, ask yourself: Does he follow instructions well? Does he do his homework without dawdling? Does he stay on top of his extracurricular activities and care for his personal belongings? If he has demonstrated responsibility in other areas of his life, then you may want to begin a discussion about the responsibilities that come with staying home alone for short periods of time.
Well, if there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule about age, is there a range during which staying alone might be considered appropriate?
Preteens range in age from 9 to 13—which is why you may have read the average age to stay home alone is 11. But just because a child reaches a certain age doesn’t mean she will be comfortable. If your child is nervous or scared, don’t push her. However, if you want to be prepared in case the unexpected pops up, you should set up a plan beforehand. Talk to your child now about what she should do if she comes home from school to an empty house. For example, tell her to call or text you to let you know that she is home. Create a contingency plan—for instance, to contact a neighbor or relative who can come by and stay with her until you can get home if she would prefer to have some company.
Are there any rules my child should follow, or things he should know how to do beforehand to feel as confident and safe as possible?
There are few things you need to have in place to make this a positive experience: Keep emergency numbers on hand, and make very sure your child knows your address, your home phone number, both parents’ mobile numbers, and contact numbers for a relative, a neighbor, etc. Make sure he knows how and when to call 911. Also, make sure he knows the backup plan. Last, review safety rules, such as no cooking, no playing outside, no answering the door, etc.
To prepare our child for a day when she might have to stay home alone for a short period or come home to an empty house, should we do a practice run, quiz her on the rules, or even let her stay alone while we walk the dog and see how she does?
Those are all great ideas, so yes, leave her home alone while you walk the dog, then leave her alone while you go to the grocery store, and so on. This will help her feel comfortable over time. If she will be coming home to an empty house after school, have her call or send you a text when she arrives home. Prepare her for any emergencies by role-playing so she knows what to do in different situations (call you at work, call 911, exit the house, go to a neighbor’s house, etc.). Not only is it comforting for her to know that you and others are easily available, it will help her explore how being alone makes her feel (independent and responsible vs. anxious and scared). In addition, it will help her build confidence so she’ll be ready to be left alone for longer periods.
What if I need to leave him home alone at night? Do I need to do anything different?
The difference between night and day is usually the number of hours you would be away. But there are other factors to be aware of. Children get tired, more time means more can go wrong, and there are fewer resources available—you don’t want to have him start searching for neighbors late in the evening. Again, start small. Go out to dinner and be home by 8:00 p.m. The next time stay out an hour later. As your child matures and becomes more comfortable and trustworthy, you can push the hours back.