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The 'Home Alone' scenario: Is your child old enough to be left alone?

Posted April 27

All parents must face this question and, like all parenting issues, making an informed decision ahead of time is far wiser than waiting. Here are some questions and tips to review before making the decision. (Deseret Photo)

Parents considering leaving their child home alone may conjure up visions of a blond boy running around yelling in panic. All parents must face this question and, like all parenting issues, making an informed decision ahead of time is far wiser than waiting.

The Children’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., published an article aptly named Home Alone. There are only “three states [that] currently have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone.” In Illinois, it’s 14 years old; in Maryland, it’s 8; while in Oregon, a child must be 10 before being left alone. However, parents “should not base [their] decision on age alone.” Children mature differently, and here are some questions from Home Alone to help:

Evaluating your child’s maturity to be left home alone

  1. Is your child physically able to care for him- or herself? This would refer to the physical abilities of strength, dexterity and possibly height. Is your child strong enough to lift a fire extinguisher if needed? Does your child have the manual ability to do any of the tasks such as food preparation or first-aid? Height would be important in regards to reaching doorknobs, cupboards, microwaves, first-aid kits and whatever else he or she might need to reach.
  2. Does your child obey rules and make good decisions? This is a matter of trust between you and your child. Can you trust them to obey the rules when no one is there to watch them? Can you trust in their decision-making skills? Are they responsible?
  3. Is your home safe and free of hazards? Childproofing a home is a new adventure for every young parent, but this goes beyond childproofing cabinets or cupboards. It touches also on the trust issue. Can you trust your child not to try and circumvent your attempts to keep them safe? This question can also refer to your neighborhood. Is your area safe enough to keep your child at home?
  4. Does your child know what to do if a visitor comes to the door? “Stranger danger” is a quaint phrase but is still important to discuss with your children. Does your child know how to secure the doors? There should be a plan in place for what to do if the child is locked out of the house. Parents should have a “password” an adult can use to show they are sent by the parents in case of emergency.
  5. Are there other adults nearby that you trust and who are home and can offer immediate assistance if there is an emergency or your child becomes fearful? This goes back to trust. Is your child mature enough to know when it is or is not okay to call another adult? Is your child too stubborn or independent to ask for help even if it is needed? Are there people you can trust to be there for your child?
To baby-sit or not?

This is much harder to answer. The most important factor is the willingness of the child. If forced to baby-sit, the outcome may not be good for either the older child or the siblings. Let the baby sitter know you’ll be reviewing their performance with the kids. Incentives for good performance can help foster goodwill. According to Public Legal Education Association (PLEA.org.), 16-year-olds can’t baby-sit during school without the school principal’s permission.

Once the decision is made

Once it has been decided, here are some tips from Home Alone:

  • Have a trial period — Go for short periods and see how it goes.
  • Role play — Act out situations. Make it a game.
  • Establish rules — Make sure your child knows what is not okay when you aren’t home. Set limits on electronic usage before you leave. Use electronic parental controls if necessary.
  • Check in — Call or text or have them need to check at certain times. For older children with cellphones, you can install an app that allows you track where they are.
  • Talk about it — Find out how the child feels about it and respect their decision. Don’t force it.

Kent Larson is originally from Phoenix, Arizona. He loves family, writing, reading, music and movies. He's been teaching English forever and still loves it. Find him at linkedin.com/in/MisterLarson.

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