When schools start their summer breaks next week, your kids will be without the one thing that’s kept them occupied, supervised, and from using that dreaded phrase, “I’m bored!”. You could try to make up for this loss by signing your child up for one of this year’s summer programs (Click here for a list.)
But even so, there will probably be a time when you’ll have to hire a babysitter or leave your child at home by him or herself. This last option begs one simple question – “is my child old enough to be left home alone?” – that doesn’t have a simple answer.
“There is no agreed upon age when children are able to stay home alone safely,” reads a publication the U.S. Children’s Bureau issued in 2013¹. “Because children mature at different rates, you should not base your decision on age alone.”
The bureau then gives parents a list of questions they might want to ask, such as whether their child can take care of themselves, can obey rules that are set, how they react to unfamiliar situations, and whether they’d feel comfortable being left home alone.
The bureau also makes it clear in its guide that children may be fine on their own in some circumstances, like when a parent makes a 20-minute trip to the store in the middle of the day, but may not be fine in other situations, like when the parent needs to go someplace for a couple hours at night.
The California Department of Education adds its own set of questions to the list that has to do with whether your child will be with his or her siblings when they’re at home without their parents, whether they’re able to use their time responsibly, and whether you or another adult, like a neighbor, will be able to go by the house if there’s an emergency².
None of these questions, like those provided by the Children’s Bureau, points to an age when it might be considered alright for a child to be left home alone. They do, however, recommend discussing the situation with your children and coming up with a list of house rules – what appliances can be used, what food they can eat, what programs they can watch on television, etc. – they should follow long before you leave them home alone for the first time.
“Decide on a trial period to iron out the wrinkles and modify the rules if needed,” the department’s article reads. “You may decide it is best to put your child back into a child care program.” Each child and household is different and that leaves opportunities for great possibilities this summer.