When is your child ready to stay home alone?

With school days coming to an end, many parents are considering whether or not their children can be left home alone or if a family member or babysitter should be enlisted to care for them.

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With school days coming to an end, many parents are considering whether or not their children can be left home alone or if a family member or babysitter should be enlisted to care for them.

Can a sibling be trusted to babysit the younger kids?

At what age is it safe to leave a child home alone? What can parents do to prepare the kids and give themselves peace of mind?

There are risks and opportunities associated with self-care. Parents need to carefully decide whether self-care is appropriate for their child, said Marlys Baker, child protection services administrator at the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

Most parents are aware of threats from accidents and fire, or harm from strangers and make special efforts to deal with them, she said. But there are also dangers to children's emotional well-being.


"There's no 'magic age' when a child suddenly becomes responsible and mature enough to stay home alone," said Baker.

North Dakota does not have a law which provides an age when children can be left alone. However, guidelines have been developed by the state Department of Human Services and are used by county social service agencies in North Dakota.

The ultimate responsibility for the safety, care, well-being and behavior of children rests with the parent or caregiver, whether they are there to personally supervise them or not.


The guidelines and factors that parents should consider when making child supervision decisions include the age and emotional well-being of their child, self-care readiness, home safety strategies and environmental conditions, Baker said.

Some safety tips, from the department's Children and Family Services Division, to consider are:

• Encourage the child to discuss feelings about being alone. If a child seems afraid, help her to talk about it and help her feel safe.

• Establish ground rules. This helps everyone to avoid confusion about what you expect and adds to the child's own sense of security. Careful planning can help insure physical safety and emotional well-being for your child.


• Remove fire hazards and install smoke detectors. Hold fire drills with each child "practicing" what to do and where to go in case of fire.

• Set up an emergency plan with a relative, friend or neighbor who may be unable to care for your child but who would be willing to be called by the child for advice or reassurance in "small emergencies" when you are unavailable by phone.

• Teach children basic first aid and have a first-aid kit available.

• When you leave, post your house address and important phone numbers near the telephone.

• Have children practice emergency 911 calls with you, giving their full address and directions if necessary.

• Review safety rules such as not playing with matches, knives and scissors.

• Have a clear understanding about use of ovens, stoves, and other appliances.

• Teach children when and if to answer the door and phone. Warn children to never let strangers into the house.


• Instruct children to never tell callers that they are alone. They should say that the parent is busy and offer to take a message. If a call seems suspicious, they should call you or another adult.

• Provide projects and materials as well as juice and nutritious snacks.

Home after school

Establish a daily routine in which your child calls you or a designated person when she arrives home.

If your child comes home after school, give him keys and perhaps an attractive key chain. The keys should be carried out of sight so that the child isn't easily identified as one who's on his own.

Arrange some after-school activities such as clubs, scouts, sports or the library. If you need help with transportation, arrange to trade weekend driving or child care with other parents.

When you return home, praise your child for doing a good job. You may be pleasantly surprised at how readily and how well your child assumes responsibility when fully prepared and given the opportunity.

Is age the only factor?


The age of the child is not the only factor that should be considered when children are left alone, according to the state human services department.

Other factors include:

• the maturity of the child.

• emotional health factors.

• the child's physical or mental limitations.

• length of time alone.

• time of day or night.

• other children present to be supervised.


• location and environmental conditions.

• frequency of being left alone.

• the accessibility of a parent or other adult.

Summer activities

"When parents have decided that their children are not ready to stay home alone during the summer, there are numerous activities available that can keep children busy in fun and safe ways," said Sandy Tibke, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota.

"School newsletters, local parks and recreation offices, and community recreation centers can be excellent sources for information on supervised summer activities for kids."

Age guidelines for staying home alone

BISMARCK -- Children left alone should be able to demonstrate knowledge of where their parents or other responsible adults are, how to reach them, and the length of time caregivers will be absent, according to the North Dakota Department of Human Services.


Children should also know emergency procedures and arrangements for emergency situations.

Ages 0-4:

The guidelines state that all children under age 4 be in view of their caregiver at all times while outside of the home.

Inside the home, the caregiver should be available and able to respond to the child to provide immediate care and protection from harm.

Children of this age should not left in vehicles unless they are in proper restraints (unable to put the vehicle in gear) and in direct view of the caregiver at all times.

Ages 4-12:

Children 8 years old and younger should be supervised at all times with a caregiver available. An 8-year-old should not be left in charge of other children.

Children who are 9 years old should not be left unsupervised for more than two hours during the daytime. A child of this age should not be unsupervised at night and should not supervise other children.

Children who are are 10 and 11 years old may be left alone for longer periods of time. However, caution is advised in leaving a child unsupervised during sleeping hours. Children this age should not be responsible for younger children.

Children who are the age of 12 years and older may be permitted to act as babysitters. It is recommended that they successfully complete an approved child-care training course.

Caution is advised on the number of children left in care, length of time for caregiving responsibility, factors regarding special needs of children left in care, and resources available to the child providing care.

Ages 13-17:

Children under 15 years of age should be attended overnight. Caution should be taken in leaving 15- to 17-year-olds alone overnight.

Extended absences of caregivers (such as over the weekend) are not recommended.

Questions to determine if your child is ready

Here are a few things to consider when determining if your child is ready to stay home alone:

  •  How does your child feel about the situation?
  •  Look at the child's age in relationship to growth, behavior and judgement.
  •  What are the responsibilities your child will be left with?
  • Will the child be able to handle those responsibilities?
  •  How long will the child be left alone? The first few times should be quite short. You will be able to stay away longer once the child is confident about safety.
  •  What are the safety risks (fires, accidents, burglary, etc.) if your child is alone?
  •  Can your child say no to peer pressure if friends encourage the child to break rules in your absence?

Source: North Dakota Department of Human Services, Child and Family Services Division, Child Protection Services

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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