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Illustration for article titled How to Know When Your Kid Is Ready to Stay Home Alone
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Staying home alone without your parents is a major childhood rite of passage; but during an age in which parents are afraid to even leave their kids in the car for a minute while they grab something from the store, figuring out when they’re ready can be a real challenge.

The law isn’t much help. According to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, only three states have laws stating a minimum age for children to be left home alone and they very widely—Maryland, eight years old; Oregon, 10 years old; and Illinois, 14 years old.

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If you happen to live in one of those states, I suppose that’s a good place to start. However, there are some other factors to think about before you head out the door.

Consider their maturity

When a child is old enough and responsible enough to be left home alone is less about age and more about maturity. Some nine-year-olds might be ready to hold down the fort while you run a quick errand while some 12-year-olds are not to be trusted, even for a second.

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You know your kid best, but the Children’s Bureau gives us a few points to consider:

  • Is your child physically and mentally able to care for themselves?
  • Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
  • How does your child respond to unfamiliar or stressful situations?
  • Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?

The circumstances will factor in, too. Will they have to make themselves a meal and if so, do they have the skills to do that safely? Is your neighborhood generally safe? Maybe your oldest is capable of staying home by herself but isn’t quite ready to care for younger siblings. All of these are considerations that will vary from family to family.

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Make sure they can communicate

They’ll need to be able to call you—or 911—in case of an emergency, if they have a question or they become scared for any reason. If you’ve got a landline, make sure they know where it is and how to use it. If you don’t and they don’t yet have their own cell phone, it might be time to get them an inexpensive “dumb phone,” which has limited features, for this purpose.

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Tablets and computers can also be used for communication, but make sure they have 911 capability and that your child knows how to utilize it.

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Get them prepped

Kids need some basic knowledge and skills before they’re ready to fly solo. The Children’s Bureau suggests enrolling them in a safety class, such as the American Red Cross’s babysitting training, to learn basic childcare and first aid skills. In addition, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your family have a safety plan for emergencies? Can your child follow this plan?
  • Does your child know his or her full name, address, and phone number?
  • Does your child know where you are and how to contact you at all times?
  • Does your child know the full names and contact information of other trusted adults and know to call 911 in case of emergency?

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Review this information with your kid regularly and post it in an easily accessible spot in the home, such as the refrigerator, in case they need it in an emergency and become flustered.

Be clear about your expectations and rules for when you’re away, including the use of electronics and under what circumstances they’re allowed to answer the door, leave the home or have friends over.

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Start out slow

You’ll want to do a couple of “trial runs” with your kid before you let him fend for himself all day long. Leave for a short amount of time and stay close to home to see how things go. Call them to check in so they don’t feel completely disconnected.

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When you return, ask them how they felt or if anything unexpected came up. It’s important that they feel as comfortable and confident in their abilities as you do.


For more from Lifehacker, be sure to follow us on Instagram @lifehackerdotcom.

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