By Guest Blogger Kelly Graves, Ph.D., HSP-P, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Kellin  Foundation

Allow my child to stay home alone?  Are they ready?  Many parents grapple with this question as they navigate the growing waters of independence as their children develop.  Whether it’s a quick trip to the grocery store, an unanticipated school closing, or the sitter backs out at the last minute, situations often spark parental thought that leads them to wonder – is it time?  And, like many big questions we have as parents, the answer is: it depends.

It is completely normal for parents to feel some level of anxiety about leaving their children home alone, especially early on.  After all, who hasn’t seen the movie Home Alone where poor Kevin is left home alone and has to fend off invaders all by his adorable self?  But while there may be some risks involved in staying home alone, it can also be a positive experience for kids as they gain a sense of independence and confidence.

While some states have laws around when children are old enough to stay home alone, North Carolina has general guidelines for parents, but often it depends on the specific circumstance. It is a Class 1 misdemeanor in the state of North Carolina for a person who is at least 16 years old to knowingly or willfully cause a juvenile to be in a place or condition where the juvenile could be neglected, but this law was not intended to target parents who leave responsible children home alone. The UNC School of Government has explained that this statue has been enacted mainly when there are other elements of neglectful behavior involved such as in the case of four children under the age of six being left alone overnight.   Although there is no age specified in juvenile code that addresses the age a child may be left home alone, North Carolina fire code (G.S. § 14-318) states that a child under the age of eight shall not be left alone without appropriate supervision due to the risk of danger by fire.

In general, most child development experts do not recommend that children under the age of 10 stay home alone. However, a child’s development can be vastly different, and thus, a specific age threshold is not sufficient.  Parents also must consider a child’s maturity, safety, community and access to emergency services.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Does your child understand safety precautions and is he/she able to properly follow safety measures?
  • Does your child tend to make good decisions? Is he or she a risk-taker?
  • Has your child been taught basic first aid and would he/she be able to apply first aid if needed?
  • Does your child generally follow your instructions related to refraining from engaging in dangerous behaviors or interacting with strangers?
  • If someone knocks on the door, does your child know how to handle that and what he or she should do when you are not home?
  • If your child becomes nervous or frightened while at home alone, does he/she have a plan with how they will contact you and/or handle it?

Some parents consider making a practice run, or scaffolding their time away from home as their child adjusts to being home alone. For example, perhaps a parent leaves the house for 30 minutes at a time, slowly increasing that length of time as the parent and the child are comfortable with this new level of independence.

Other parents develop a plan that includes specific times when parents and children will touch base (i.e. check-in) to make sure everything is ok.  Parents often set ground rules for what is, and what is not, allowed while a child is home alone.  Some of the things that might be included in these ground rules are things like whether or not they can have friends over, internet or computer rules, what they can make in the kitchen, and what to do when someone comes to the door or calls on the phone asking to speak to one of their parents.  Parents frequently make a list of emergency contact numbers that can be posted on the fridge in the event of an emergency. Parents can also ensure that medications are kept in locked cabinets, firearms (if in the home) are secured, and any alcohol or other substances are not accessible.  And don’t forget to ask your children.  If staying home alone sounds scary for them, you’ll know they are not ready.

So, the real question is not one of how old does my child need to be?  It comes down to your child’s maturity level and your comfort level as a parent that your child has the ability to plan for safety, emergencies, and engage in appropriate and safe independent activity.

*The Kellin Foundation is a nonprofit (501c3) organization that supports children, individuals, families, and communities to achieve safety and wellness.  They provide personalized and comprehensive community-based programming.  Their goals are to assist individuals and communities with safety, restore hope, facilitate healing, and achieve holistic wellness.