Ripped from the headlines, the horror stories are many. Why would any parent allow their child to come home to—and stay in—an empty house when the world is so unpredictable?

But there will come a time that your child will ask for more independence—like being allowed to return home after school versus going to an organized afterschool group or activity. And you will have to make a decision.

They might believe they are ready, sure. But are they, really? Are we?

Jeff and Liz Monroe of Stillwater were overly stressed with the cost of afterschool care and frustrated with the mad morning rush to get to work, as well as get their sons, Joe and Alex, ages eight and 11, to their supervised before-school group. “At about this same time, our two boys started hounding us about letting them stay home alone before and after school rather than going to the kids’ club,” says Liz.

“Until the boys brought up the idea of staying home alone, it really hadn’t occurred to us that this might be an option,” says Jeff.

The parents liked the idea, but of course were worried too. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t just making the decision because it would be easier for us,” Liz cautioned. “We wanted to know they were really ready for this step. 

State guidelines

MN state law says that parents must provide their children with adequate supervision so they’re not left in unsafe situations. According to Don Pelton, Community Services Supervisor for Washington County, in 2008 the Citizens Review Panel published It’s Not Safe for Kids Under 8, a set of clear guidelines for parents to refer to as they attempt to interpret the state law in terms of when it’s safe for children to be left unsupervised. The panel examined research regarding the ability of children to care for themselves, respond to emergency situations, and keep themselves safe. 

The guidelines from this study were adopted by The MN Department of Human Services and added to the statewide Maltreatment Screening Guidelines. These guidelines are:

  • Children under age 8 should not be left alone for any period of time.
  • Children ages 8, 9, and 10 may be left alone for no longer than three hours.
  • Children under the age of 11 should not provide childcare (babysitting).
  • Children ages 11­ to 13 may be left alone for no longer than 12 hours.
  • Children ages 14 and 15 may be left alone for no longer than 24 hours.
  • Children ages 11 to 15 that are placed in a childcare role are subject to the same time restrictions of being left alone.
  • Children ages 16 and 17 may be left alone for over 24 hours with a plan in place concerning how to respond to an emergency and have adequate adult back-up supervision.

Assessing readiness

Kristin and Bill Nielsen of Maplewood experienced a situation similar to the Monroes. When their kids were about seven and 11, their involvement in evening activities increased. “We could tell they were struggling to go from afterschool care to evening activities without any down time at home in between,” says Kristin.

“For a couple of years we were able to negotiate some flexibility with our bosses to limit the amount of time the children had to spend in afterschool care,” adds Bill, but he noted that as the kids got older, he and his wife realized that they were becoming quite independent. “We both started to think they were probably ready to take on the responsibility of coming home on their own,” says Bill.

“It’s extremely important for parents to understand and respect their children’s strengths and limitations to be able to assess accurately if they’re ready to stay home alone,” says pediatrician Kristin Davis of Allina Medical Clinics. “There are many children that are within the age guidelines that aren’t ready to be home alone due to impulsivity, mental health issues, behavioral issues, lack of focus, or simply lack of desire to be home alone. Parents are key players in making a safe assessment.” 

Davis doesn’t usually get too many questions related to supervision of children. However, she has begun to share the MN State Guidelines with parents and talk with them about signs of readiness. “I’m very honest with parents if I feel a child isn’t ready to be home alone based on what they’ve shared with me during an appointment.”

One of Stillwater Medical Group’s Family Practitioners, Beth Adams, explains, “I recommend that parents ask their child’s teachers or other caretakers how they think the child would handle being home alone. For a child to safely stay home alone he should consistently follow through with directions, expectations, and use good judgment in all settings.”

Tips for parents

Leaving a child to get to school on his or her own or to come home to an empty house is a bigger responsibility than just leaving your child while you run a few errands. There are more variables involved when your child is leaving or entering the house alone. If your child is given this responsibility, it’s important that he has a strong awareness of his surroundings. Think about when your child gets off the bus, for example. Would he notice if there was an unfamiliar car or person near his home? How about if there is a car continuing to drive by or circle around while he waited at the bus stop? If your child lacks an awareness of his surroundings, he isn’t ready to be home alone.  

Many times in life things go as planned—until they just don’t. As adults, we’ve learned what steps we need to take when something goes differently than expected. Children are very much concrete thinkers. It’s difficult for them to think and understand that sometimes a secondary plan is needed. If you find that your child isn’t able to think beyond Plan A, then it’s too early for them to be left home alone.

So, what should children know? Here are some ideas:

  • Who to call if something goes wrong
  • What to do if he or she has forgotten or lost a house key
  • What to do if someone comes to the door
  • What to do when the phone rings
  • What activities are allowed when home alone
  • Where the first aid kit is
  • What to do if a fire breaks out
  • When you’ll be returning

Home alone success

After much consideration the Monroes determined that their children were ready for the next step. “We started leaving the kids gradually. The first few times we only left them for short periods while we ran errands,” says Liz. “Then we allowed them to come home off the bus by themselves and eventually get on the bus on their own in the mornings.” They also alerted a couple of trusted neighbors, which provided a level of comfort for the family. 

When children are ready to be home alone, parents often see their child grow in confidence from the added responsibility. “We really noticed that both kids started to show even more responsibility once we gave them the opportunity to be home alone,” says Bill Nielsen, noting that, “they actually started taking on more household jobs without being asked and needed fewer reminders to get their homework done.”

The two families continue to revisit and discuss how to handle situations that might arise when their children are home alone. They have set rules and guidelines about acceptable home alone activities and what things are not allowed. “We’ve had very few problems,” says Jeff Monroe. “I think taking the time to talk about it and gradually build up to it really helped. Our kids take it seriously and we're grateful for that.”

Is it time?

Before your child stays home alone, consider the following:

  • Do you live in an area with a safe adult close by?
  • Do you feel you live in a safe neighborhood?
  • Does your child know your home address? Spell it?
  • Will your child have access to a phone while home alone? Does he/she know how to use it?
  • Do they understand when and how to call 911?
  • Does your child have an awareness of his or her surroundings and the ability to be alert to potential dangers?
  • Does your child consistently follow through with expectations and rules at home, school, sports, etc.? In other words, does your child use good judgment in all settings?
  • Will you be able to rely on your child to follow through with the expectations and guidelines you set up as a family when he’s left alone?
  • Does your child typically remain coherent with his or her judgment during stressful or scary situations?
  • Is your child interested in being home alone?

If you weren’t able to answer yes to all of the above questions, your child is likely not ready to be home alone at this time. For more information on assessing this possibility, go to Think Small or MN.gov.