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When Can You Leave Your Child Home Alone?

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I recently went on a summer vacation and left our “adult/college” son at home for a week as he was working.  I must admit that he is working very long hours, so he really does not spend much time at the house.

My husband and I did leave a “short list” of “things to do while we are gone”.  The list included such essentials as feed the dog, water the plants, turn off lights when you are not at home, you get the idea.

We were not concerned about him “burning down the kitchen” as we knew he would be either eating at work or picking up something on his way home. He was also going to be away for a long weekend while we were gone, so it really meant about 4 days of “housekeeping” chores.

Upon our return late one night, we entered the house to find the dog roaming around, several of her toys had been chewed up and were all over the floor (why would one pick up the mess?).

All of the lights were on downstairs, which helped to illuminate my garden with what appeared to by “dying” tomatoes and plants in the background.

There were old newspapers and mail thrown into the corner of the entry hall, and the “children” had lovingly hung a new family picture, but had just laid the old picture on the floor.

The following  morning, I went to go to work and my car must have “been borrowed” and food had been left in the cup holder which was swarming with ants!  While also trying to deal with ant infestation, I noticed that my car tank was empty too! I am sure working son used every car available and as each one got low on gas, he used the next car. (Much easier than stopping to fill up his car!)

So, this begs the question “at what age can you leave your child home alone?”  In most cases this means when is a child old enough to stay home while a parent may run to the store, or drive a carpool for a sibling?

I think that most children are ready to be left alone for an hour or so once they are somewhere  between the ages of 9–11.

As we know, children are all different, and there are certainly very mature 8 year olds who might be able to “run” the house for the day, and some 12 year olds that you wouldn’t dream of leaving alone. This is just a guideline.

When beginning to let your child stay alone, start with small increments and review responsibilities (hmmm…..sounds easier than it is sometimes), such as not answering the door, or not cooking, and not leaving the house etc.

Also review how to call the parental cell phones, neighbors and 911 if needed. I would type up a sheet and leave it posted.

As your child becomes comfortable with you being gone for 30 min to an hour you can lengthen the time that you are gone and check in with them occasionally.

This age group loves getting the nod that they are “growing up” and can be alone for a time. This is an important developmental milestone that not only develops maturity but also autonomy while building confidence in your child.  When you return review with them how things went, discuss any issues that might have arisen and praise them for following directions.

Many tweens and teens are then ready to start babysitting for other families, but need to have learned how to stay alone for an evening by themselves before they are made responsible for other children.

I would also recommend that they take a “babysitting course” either through the YMCA, and Girl Scouts or Boys Scouts, that prepares them for this responsibility and also has CPR instruction included.

Babysitting is not only a good way for this age group to earn some of their own spending money, but it also teaches them how difficult it is to be a good parent and role model and hopefully shows teens that they are not ready to be a parent. (I think it is a good birth control/abstinence lesson).

I guess I still have some teaching to do in our own home, but the tomatoes seem to have been rescued, the papers are all recycled, the car is exterminated and our son is just fine!  According to him, it went perfectly!

That’s your daily dose for today.  We’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question to Dr. Sue!

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