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Guidelines for Leaving Your Child Alone

Guidelines for Leaving Your Child Alone

Deciding when your child is ready to stay home alone is a difficult decision for parents.  There is no set age, either prescribed by law or by child development experts.  It comes down to a judgment call on the part of parents.

Fortunately, there are some guidelines and certain factors to consider, as well as things to do if you decide to leave your children home alone

To decide if your child can take care of himself or herself, consider:

  • The child's age. Experts believe there is no one age that can decide whether a child can be left alone or allowed to care for a younger child.  These questions vary by child and are subject to cultural and community-specific variations.   Some children who are school-ready may be old enough to be alone briefly or may safely play outside or walk to school while other children are not ready even when they are teenagers. 
  • The child's maturity. Can your child think things through, plan ahead, and make good decisions.
  • The child's ability to handle urgent situations. Your child should show good judgment and follow your rules. Your child should know how to get help, what to do in a fire, how to deal with visitors and callers, etc.
  • The environment. Is it safe? Are there people nearby who can be trusted to watch out for your child?
  • How long your child will be alone. An hour or two might be fine; a day may be too long.
  • The child's feelings. If your child is nervous about being alone or isn't sure he or she can handle certain situations, your child is not ready.

If you feel your child can stay alone, give your child what he or she needs to be safe, including:  The house key. Have your child keep it in a safe, but hidden place, like a zippered part of your child's backpack.

Phone numbers.  Post a phone number where you can be reached and numbers of two neighbors who are likely to be home and who have agreed to look out for your child.  Let your neighbor's know what time your child comes home from school.

Safety rules.
 When home alone, your child should:
  • not enter the house if he or she sees something suspicious (e.g. an open door, broken window, strange people).  The child should go to a neighbor's house, call 911, then you and not let anyone in.  Delivery people can be told to go to a neighbor's house and repair people can come back.
  • not tell anyone he or she is home alone. If someone calls, your child can say, "My mother (father) can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?"
  • not go to anyone's house without your permission.
  • Schedule a time each day to check in with one another.
Teach your child:
  • When to call 911 and what to say.
  • How to prevent fires and what to do if one breaks out (E.g. get out of the house fast and call 911 from a neighbor's house).
  • Basic first aid (some towns offer courses for children). Some towns and employers offer a "home alone" class for children; ask your town recreation department, school or employer.

Try leaving your child home alone for an hour or two and see how he or she does before you do it long term.

Each day, talk to your child about what he or she did during the day. Ask your child often how he or she feels about staying home alone. Review safety rules.

If you, or your child have any doubts, it is best to make other arrangements. Maybe another parent, college student, or local after-school program can help out.

If you need to find care for your child, check with INFOLINE (2-1-1), your relatives, neighbors and friends, your child's school, your city or town parks and recreation department, or a local YMCA/YWCA.

See Also
FactSheet for Families "Leaving Your Child Home Alone" (U.S. Departmentof Health and Human Services)