Home alone

A few years ago, my two sons were big fans of the movie Home Alone. They’d respond to the slapstick antics with peals of laughter, and every subsequent viewing seemed to lead into an elaborate plotting of ways they could booby-trap our house to foil potential robbers.

Now my younger son, Elias, is 10 and occasionally is left home alone. His older siblings, whom I have relied upon for childcare, are busier with their own after-school activities. It seemed like the perfect time for me to review the rules and recommendations about leaving children home alone.

Minnesota has no law specifying the exact age at which a child may be left home alone. However, there are laws about providing appropriate and adequate supervision, and county child protection agencies all follow guidelines to help assess whether a child’s safety is in question. 

For example, Dakota County’s policy is to investigate reports where children age seven and under are left alone for any period of time, children eight and nine are left alone for more than two hours, and children 10 to 13 are left alone for more than 12 hours. But in determining whether children are inadequately supervised, the county’s child protection officers will consider many other factors besides age, such as the child’s maturity level, the accessibility of a parent or responsible adult by phone or in person, and whether the residence has a smoke detector.

Assessing maturity

Because it’s so subjective and every child is different, parents should consider whether their children have the physical, social, and emotional maturity necessary to take care of themselves at home.

“Parents shouldn’t take it lightly; it’s a very serious thing, and a big step for both parents and kids,” says Kathleen Olson, family relations educator with the University of Minnesota Extension. “Children can feel really good about it if they’re prepared and feel like they’re gaining independence.”

Children often start asking to stay home by themselves around the fourth grade, Olson says. She recommends starting with a short amount of time and giving the child a brief list of guidelines, covering issues like what appliances they can use, and whether they can have a friend over.

She says it’s also helpful to role-play safety situations with children, to see how they would react if a stranger came to the door, or what they would do in case of a fire.

“Communicate with them ahead of time about some of these things, then talk with them after the time alone happens, and see how they’re feeling. Were they scared? Did they think somebody was going to come to the door? They may feel they handled things well, or they may be really scared,” she says.

Too much, too soon

Although it’s important to give kids instructions, it’s easy to overwhelm them with too many rules. Olson says it’s not necessary to cover everything the first time or two that a child is left home alone. Provide information gradually, and periodically review things that don’t come up that often, like what to do if the power goes out.

Olson says some parents focus on safety issues but forget to discuss their expectations for how children should spend their time. When kids come home after school, are they expected to do their homework immediately, or can they watch TV first? Are they allowed to use the computer? What are their snack options?

“It takes a lot of planning for a parent to have kids home alone—more than if you take them to childcare, in my opinion. But not all parents think about it that way,” she says.

Another common issue parents face is how to manage siblings at home together. Olson says if children are at least three years apart, it usually works best to have the older child in charge of the younger one. But if children are closer in age, it might work better, depending on their personalities, to have them in charge of each other, or in charge of themselves. Whatever parents decide, they should make the arrangement clear to the children.

Parents also should assess how comfortable they feel about having a child home alone. Mixing it up by having a child home alone a few days, and by also having a teen or neighbor stay with the child on other days, might help both parents and children ease into the transition and feel more confident that the home alone experience will have a happy ending—just like in the movies.