How to Know When Your Child is Ready to Stay Home Alone

July 5, 2016

What is the appropriate age for children to be left at home alone? As a father, I know there will be a day when our family will have to decide on when my daughters will be ready to be left unsupervised. It’s a difficult and somewhat uncomfortable decision. Obviously, a 6-year-old should never be left alone and a 17-year-old probably can be but what about all the ages in between?

What does Canadian law say? As a parent, you are legally responsible for the decision to let your child stay home unsupervised. In Canada, from a legal perspective the age you can leave your child alone varies between the ages of 10 to 12 depending on the province . But is a 10-year-old or even a 12-year-old really ready to be left alone?

What factors should we consider? Certainly, age is not the only factor. Before leaving a child at home alone, regardless of age, we need to make sure she is ready. But how do we know if she is ready?

To definitively answer this question I asked child care expert and founder Martha Scully to identify and discuss the factors we should consider when determining if your child is capable of handling time without supervision at home. She came up with this list.

6 Factors Other than the Law to Consider Before Leaving Your Children Home Alone

1. Common Sense

This is here because we all know that common sense is not so common. Most children are not ready to be left alone until they are at least 12 years old and even then the factors below need to be considered, and they should not be left overnight. Young kids should never be left home alone for any amount of time. The first thing you should be asking is “will my child feel comfortable in the home alone?”

2. How Mature is Your Child?

Maturity levels vary greatly from one child to another. Some 12 year-olds are more responsible than some 16 year-olds but how can we determine a child’s maturity and comfort level?

Ask yourself the following questions

  • Do they know their full name, address and phone number?
  • Do they know who to call in case of emergency?
  • Would they be able to handle a stranger coming to the door?
  • Will they be able to follow the rules?
  • How do they handle unexpected situations?
  • Do they stay calm when things don’t go as planned?

If your child is easily frightened or can’t be trusted to follow safety rules you may want to consider waiting to leave them alone at all.

3. How Long and How Frequently Will The Child Be Left Alone?

Once a child passes the maturity test and you want to start leaving them home alone it should always be a gradual process. Start with short trial periods. Try a quick trip 30 min trip to the corner store, then maybe an hour at the gym.

You should gradually build based on your child’s comfort level. Canada Safety Council recommends keeping initial trials to a maximum of 2 hours, always during the day and only when a responsible adult is nearby.

4. Are There Trusted, Responsible Adults Near By?

Even though in the beginning you will only be gone for a short time and your child may be ready mentally and emotionally you’ll always want to inform a few trusted neighbourhood friends of the situation. Ask them if your son or daughter can call on them if they need to.

Don’t feel bad you can always return the favour. It will be comforting to your child to know that someone familiar is close if they need immediate help.

5. Is the Child Ready to Handle Safety Rules and Emergencies

Did you know many communities offer home alone courses for children? A home alone course teaches kids about phone safety, how to deal with visitors at the door, basic First Aid, internet safety and accident prevention. The Candian Safety Council offers a Home Alone Program their website says

“The Home Alone Program is designed to provide children 10 years of age and older with the necessary skills and knowledge to be safe and responsible when home alone for
short periods of time. It will help them understand how to prevent problems, handle real-life situations, and keep them safe and constructively occupied.”

Before leaving your child

  • Discuss the nature of a true emergency and who to call in case of one
  • Practice what to say if she must answer the phone (never say parents aren’t home)
  • Review the fire escape plan (know a minimum of 2 ways out from any room)
  • Discuss what to do if somebody comes to the door (never open the door to strangers and best just not to answer)

With regards to helping your child understand what a real emergency is Martha shared a personal story where a former neighbour’s daughter called 911 because of a very large and scary spider! Every year emergency 911 receives calls thousands from kids about non-emergency matters like this. Do your best to make sure your kids don’t add to this stat.

6. Can Your Child Follow The Rules?

Establish rules before allowing your child to stay home by themselves. Rules should cover things that they can or cannot do while at home by themselves.

These likely entail things they might do on a regular basis, that are now off limits because you are not there

  • no household appliances (waffle maker, dryers, chest freezers)
  • no exercise equipment
  • no knives or other sharp objects
  • do not answer the phone
  • do not open the door

Taking a child from room to room can assure that all the rules are covered. Encourage your child not to tell anyone that they are home alone. Depending on age, parents should typically not allow their child to have any friends over when they are home alone. Friends have a not so funny way of occasionally talking otherwise well-behaved kids into mischief.

Is Your Child Ready to Be Left Home Alone?

As laid out in this article, whether or not your child is ready to be left home alone depends on several factors including the age, common sense, maturity, proximately of trusted adults and preparedness of the child.

Parents should regularly speak to their child about how they feel about being home alone. If your child expresses discomfort with it, consider other alternatives like a babysitter or a relative, until they feel they can handle this responsibility.

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