When can a child be left home alone? It depends.
Your kids are growing up so fast. They are getting smarter and more responsible, and they want more independence. It might be time to let them stay home on their own for a bit. Wait, what? Home alone? Without an adult?
A lot can go wrong without grown-up supervision. But if it's done correctly, experts say, this mile marker can give you and your kids some much-needed freedom and feelings of accomplishment. It can also go a long way in establishing trust in your relationship.
"It's a big step in independence and should be recognized as a milestone," said Patti Cancellier, education director at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Md. "Our job as parents is to make our children completely independent people."
A few states specify a minimum age it's legal to leave kids on their own. For example, in Maryland, it's 8 as long as there are not younger siblings at home. But most places, including Virginia and Washington, D.C., offer guidelines, not laws.
That's because kids develop emotionally at different rates, making it a highly subjective matter. A mature 10-year-old might be ready for some freedom that an immature 14-year-old couldn't handle.
Parenting experts say that once kids start asking whether they can stay home on their own, that's a sign they might be ready.
"It depends on their personality and on what other responsibilities they have at home," said Michelle Visser, a psychotherapist and parenting consultant in the Boston area. "Are they anxious? Do they still want to hold your hand if it's really crowded somewhere? Are they waiting for you to leave the house so they can go to the computer and go to that website you said they couldn't go to?"
A gradual process
Figuring out whether your child is ready to be home alone is a gradual process. Ruthie Arbit, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker who practices in the District, has come up with a four-point checklist for parents who are considering leaving their kids on their own for the first time.
1. Safety: If your child needed to leave the house for an emergency, would they be safe? Is there a friend or neighbor nearby who can offer help in an emergency?
2. Responsibility: Can your child watch younger siblings, unpack groceries, do his own laundry? "Some kids might need hand-holding for basic tasks," Arbit says. "It's wintertime; do they need reminders to put on a hat? Are they able to do day-to-day activities without constant reminders? Will they walk outside and get locked out of the house?" If kids aren't responsible with you around, they probably won't be responsible without you.
3. Cognitive readiness: Would they keep a level head if things didn't go as planned? Arbit gives the example of a child slipping and falling. Would they stay on the floor and wait for you to come home, or would they assess their injuries and, if needed, grab a phone and call someone? "Are they able to, in moments of distress, access resources available to them?" Arbit asks. "When they get upset, do they get really flustered? When you tell your 10-year-old they can't have something in a store, do they run off upset?"
4. Emotional readiness: Will they spend the entire 40 minutes you're gone in bed crying, or will they watch some agreed-upon television? "Parents need to know their child well enough to know whether they will handle the situation," Arbit says.
If you think your kids might be ready, talk with them about it and ask whether they'd like to try it, Arbit says. If they're game and you're comfortable, start small by popping over to a neighbor's house for 10 minutes, then progress to a 30-minute grocery run.
"You start to know when kids are comfortable when you run next door for a minute," said Tina Feigal, a parenting coach and trainer based in St. Paul, Minn. "It's a gradual, step-by-step readiness."
There are various child supervision guidelines, such as those from Fairfax County, Va., that suggest at age 8 to 10 parents might be able to explore leaving kids alone for no more than an hour and a half, and only during the day and early evening.
If that goes well, starting around age 11 or 12, parents might consider leaving them for up to three hours, but not late at night. This is the range of time they may be able to handle being alone after school.
Children ages 13 to 15 should be able to be home alone for a time. With 16- and 17-year-olds, parents can assess whether they feel comfortable leaving their kids overnight, the guidelines state.
In that scenario, experts say, kids should be careful not to tell too many friends or post on social media, because they may end up in an uncomfortable and potentially precarious situation with groups of kids showing up looking for a house party.
Before that process of building trust can start, parents need to set ground rules. Cancellier suggests agreements about whether homework needs to get done, whether it's okay to have friends over and how much screen time is allowed. She also said to be sure parental controls are set on all devices.
Some questions she suggests going over with your child include: What would you do if the doorbell rang? Do you plan to cook? What would you do if you smelled something funny? Do you know whom to call if you feel really scared?
Cancellier also suggests that parents and kids agree about when and how to check in. Parents should be sure there is a phone in the house. The device needs to be charged, and the ringer needs to be on. Children should know where to find emergency numbers.
She said it is critical to go over scenarios so kids feel confident they can handle situations that may arise.
"You work together so your child will be completely equipped to handle this responsibility," Cancellier said. "It's an attitude, an opportunity for kids to grow and feel better about themselves and feel confident."
Arbit adds that kids love getting extra privileges.
"It can be helpful if kids find it to be fun when their parents are away," Arbit says. "They could think, 'Oh, when Mom is away, I can watch extra TV, and I can sneak a little ice cream,' instead of, 'Oh, when Mom is away the house is very quiet."
A pact for both sides
Arbit emphasized that it is important to do what you say you'll do, in the same way you expect your kids to do what they say.
"You're not just leaving, you're leaving with a time you'll be back," Arbit said. "Try to be back at that time. You're entering into this contract. The parent is expecting the child to be responsible, and the child is expecting the parent to be responsible."
Ultimately, Feigal said, parents need to pick up on cues from their kids to figure out when - and how quickly - to start loosening the parental reins.
"It's always going to be an individual family call. Parents have to use their intuition and instincts," Feigal said. "Incremental trust is good for not only parents trusting kids, but kids trusting themselves, too. They need to learn from their parents that they are trustworthy."