I remember one of the first times my mother left me and my siblings home alone for longer than a few minutes. I was 12 years old, and as the eldest of 4 children, felt pretty mature and responsible. My mom was only gone about an hour, but she came home to what was likely her worse nightmare at the time. The condominium complex next to ours had caught on fire and our neighborhood was surrounded by fire trucks and medical personnel. We were absolutely fine, but my mom was very hesitant to leave us alone for quite awhile after that.

Leaving a child home alone is unnerving for parents as there are so many things that can go right or wrong! The decision to let your child stay home alone should consider many things including: your child’s maturity level, their ability to follow through on tasks that they’re given, their own comfort with being alone, having a trusted adult close by who can check in if you’re running behind schedule, and the presence of an emergency plan.

I searched and could not find a specific Washington State law mandating a specific age, but drawing on my own experience and the experiences of friends and family there was a consensus that kids who are under 10 years old just don’t have the ability to handle a crisis alone if one should come up and shouldn’t be left alone very long. Most people I asked felt like the minimum age to stay home alone longer than an hour should be 12. If there are multiple children at home, consider raising the age even higher to 14 and not having them home without a supervising adult for longer than an hour or 2 if possible.

For older teens, the question becomes when can they stay home alone for days at a time? This was the main topic of one of my favorite movies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (ok, so it’s from the 1980’s, but still relevant!). In the movie, Ferris was left alone for a school day (he claimed to be sick) while his parents were away for business. Needless to say chaos ensued including a wrecked car, party, alcohol use, and extensive property damage. He and his friends were a resourceful teens who cleaned it all up, but the movie addressed a lot of issues. His parents had a list of tasks for him, and had arranged to check in with him regularly; his friend’s Dad had discussed expectations (Dad’s sports car was off limits). I would add to this list that his parents should have discussed the topics of having friends over, using the computer/internet, cable TV program limits, homework, and emergency phone numbers as well as a fire/emergency plan. Another big issue is the use of drugs and alcohol both at their home or if he were to go to a friend’s home while his parents were away. These topics should all be discussed with your teen and decisions on rules and consequences be made as a family ahead of time.

Of course the age a child can be left alone is going to vary by the family and the child. Some 10 year olds are able to remain calm in crisis, follow through on tasks easily, and show responsibility in everything from finishing their homework to making their own pot of mac and cheese for dinner. Others may not be ready to stay home without an adult until well out of the preteen years.  Regardless, let this be a gradual process. Start with short periods away to build their confidence and yours.

Here is a summary of some things I’d consider and to do before leaving a child or older teen home alone (most can be considered well before they’re teens):

  • How well does your child follow through on tasks like completing choirs or homework?
  • Ask your child if they feel comfortable being home alone without an adult. If not, ask them why and what they would need to feel comfortable.
  • Discuss your expectations regarding TV programs, internet use, homework, preparing meals, friends visiting when you are not there.
  • Know that your child has your phone number and an emergency contact (in addition to 911) memorized. Practice scenarios when they should use that number or call 911.
  • Have an emergency evacuation plan in place.
  • Consider the safety of your neighborhood as well (are break-ins and thefts frequent? Are there other families in your neighborhood with similar age kids?)
  • Arrange for a trusted adult to check in on them in person and/or plan times when you’ll call them to check in on how they are doing.
  • Do you have alcohol or prescription drugs readily accessible at home? Throw out expired prescriptions and medications you don’t use. Use a locked pill box to store prescription medications you do use. Consider not keeping alcohol in the home.

Finally: What experiences have readers had?  What were the factors that led you to feel comfortable leaving your child/preteen at home alone for the first time? Do you have any helpful advice for parents of younger teens?