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I'm curious what kind of criteria others are using to decide when a child can be left at home unattended for a period of time.

I realize that the answer is going to depend on a few factors: The child's safety awareness and knowledge of what to do in a particular situation; their age; their maturity level; how long you intend to be gone; how far you're going; etc.

For a more concrete example: My daughter is 7-1/2, knows right from wrong, how to use a phone, our phone numbers, 911 (US emergency services number), not to answer the door unless we ask her to, not to mess with the stove, etc. Is it conceivable that she's old enough to stay home alone for relatively short intervals?

We'd have to start with very short (5-10 minutes) intervals until both our and her confidence were built up, but I think she should be able to gain the confidence to be left home for longer than that. I don't think she's old (or mature) enough to be left in charge of her younger siblings yet, but she could entertain herself and stay out of trouble.

Edit:

This is about children taking early steps towards independence at home. I know that when I was a teenager, my parents left me at home alone while they went shopping (which can be an all-day event with my mother :-) ) or even spent a weekend away. They trusted that both the house and I would be in one piece when they came home. But those weren't my first times being left at home alone -- this question is about the first steps one takes towards that level of independence. When is the right time to start? What are you looking for in your children that makes you think: "They're ready to begin this particular journey?"

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Note that in some places, there are legal requirements that trump parental judgement and child development. For example, in NZ, the minimum age is 14 (legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1981/0113/latest/DLM53535.html), for any significant period of time. –  Tony Meyer Jan 25 '12 at 0:33
    
@TonyMeyer: Thanks for that. The whole idea is for the spans of time to be reasonable, though I'm sure the exact definition of that word will differ from person to person. –  afrazier Jan 25 '12 at 0:38
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4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Beyond finding out if it is legally an option to leave your child alone (regardless of the time span) I think there are a few things that need to be considered before leaving a child alone regardless of the age that happens.

  • Do you live in a relatively safe location and is there a nearby neighbor that your child can turn to for assistance in case of an emergency?

  • Is your child able to reason through a problem and make a safe choice (a stranger at the door = don't answer the door, if I get hurt, I should call for help, etc.)

  • All homes contain dangers, but does yours have additional dangers to accidental death/ injury, e.g. in-ground pool.

I suspect there may be more, but they escape me. I would also think the first stage might be being left alone inside while you are doing yard work or being left in the living room while you go down to the laundry room and fold a load of laundry, slowly widening the distance and extending the time period.

Whenever your child reaches the point of being left alone, make sure to remind them of the rules and expectations. I recall my mom reminding us every time she would leave us alone even for a few minutes, "do not open the door to anyone, if you answer the phone, you tell them you mom is in the bathroom, if there are any problems - go next door and 911 is for real emergencies."

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Our daughters are 7 and 5,5. Both have already been left home alone a couple of times for ~10 minutes at most, and survived :-) We usually make sure they are engaged in watching some cartoon DVD or drawing, to minimize risks. (The risk we are most aware of is finding a complete mess of a household upon getting home ;-)

Sounds like your daughter could start getting used to it too (if she is OK with it of course - ours had no problem, that's why we ventured to do it). Don't know what kind of apartment you are living in - if you have a garden, it is natural to start with leaving her inside alone while you adults are in the garden (or vice versa). This way should she mess up something, or start panicking, she knows where to find you right away. Once she is comfortable with that, you may consider leaving for 5-10 minutes. In our case it was not much a question of planning, rather necessity to leave one of them alone at home for some time. However, before that they were already comfortable playing along for extended periods of time in their own room, or in the garden, without us interfering.

Our street is quiet and safe, and the children don't know how to open the entrance door anyway (it is locked and they have no key - of course there is an emergency exit towards the backyard which is not locked when we are at home), so I am not worried of strangers getting into the house. YMMV.

Update

Of course, leaving a kid at home alone for several hours or a whole afternoon is a very different thing. I would definitely not do that with my children now, and for several years yet.

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@Downvoter, care to explain your reasons? –  Péter Török Jan 25 '12 at 15:32
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Although it sounds like you beleive your child is ready to be left at home I still can't beleive it is a good idea. The first question I would ask is why does she need to be left home alone? As mentioned above check the law, you could be legally neglecting your child be leaving her. It is not only a question of maturity, it is a question as well about social/emotional development. While you think, and she may appear to think, it is a complement to be considered old enough to be left at home what message is it truly sending her about your care of her? I was a 'latch key kid' (the old phrase in the US for kids that came home alone from school with a key to the house) and I always felt, deep inside, that my mom's work was more important than I was.

In terms of answering your core question, what age is the right age. You are right that it depends on the individual child, however, I would not even consider it until 10 or 11. why rush?

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Sometimes parents have no choice and both need to work, in order for the family to survive financially. This is quite common in poorer parts of the world. –  Péter Török Jan 25 '12 at 15:40
    
Very true (both my husband and I work full time) however research should be done either into after school activities or a friend that can help out. I sometimes have an 8th grade student stay with my kids briefly and then I help her with her homework instead of paying her. –  morah hochman Jan 25 '12 at 15:45
    
I'm not talking about letting her be a latch key kid (I was one too, but never had the same feelings about my parents that you did) I'm talking about shorter trips like "I need a few things from the grocery store to finish dinner. Want to come? No, okay -- I'll be back in 10 or 15 minutes." It's a first step towards independence -- I don't want her first time home alone to be when she's 15 and she has to take care of her siblings for several hours while my wife and I go have a date night or something. –  afrazier Jan 25 '12 at 17:01
    
@afrazier Don't you think there is a middle ground between 7 and 15? 7 is still very young for alot of things they may seem mature enough for. I have an 8 year old daughter who has been older than her age from birth and probably could be safe searching youtube or staying home alone but that doesn't mean she needs to do it. –  morah hochman Jan 25 '12 at 18:13
    
@afrazier sounds like you will only be doing it to placate her, at age 7 it is not a choice, it is a necessity that she participates in grocery shopping if you need to go because she is a child. –  morah hochman Jan 25 '12 at 18:15
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If it were me I would wait until 10 and then be sure that they are responsible. A lot can happen and @ 7 I just don't think they have the stress skills to handle a situation if something did happen at the house. They would need to understand what they can/can't do why you are there and be trusted to actually follow those guidelines. They are kids and at 7 i just wouldn't be comfortable with that level of responsibility. The also need to know how to handle a situation when someone comes to the door.

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hard and fast rules just don't work - my kids have one friend who is 13 I wouldn't trust to hold a spoon without hurting someone, and another who is 7 who is incredibly responsible and aware. I think this needs to be a behavioural decision, not necessarily age based. –  Rory Alsop Jan 25 '12 at 12:45
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