Kids are home for summer break, but when is it safe for them to stay home alone? Experts weigh in
School is out for the summer, and for many parents, it's time to think about what their kids will be doing to occupy their time. For some, summer break may mean weeks spent at day camps or sleepaway camps, while others may be asking when it's OK for kids to stay home alone while their parents are at work.
The idea of letting kids stay alone for an entire day may sound unthinkable to some parents, but for many it's common practice, especially as their children grow older. Catherine Pearlman, the family therapist behind The Family Coach and author of both Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction and First Phone: A Child's Guide to Digital Responsibility, Safety and Etiquette says when it comes to knowing whether or not to leave kids home alone in the summer, it's important parents know if their children are mature enough and establish safety protocols in case of an emergency or unexpected situation.
Can kids stay home alone in the summer?
While Pearlman says there's no one right answer when it comes to deciding what age kids are OK to stay home alone, there are a few factors that should be considered.
"This depends on the maturity of the child, the number of children who will be left at home, the length of time a child will be on their own and the state the family lives in," she says. "Some states have minimum ages for children to legally be left alone so it's always important to check your state's laws.
According to Pearlman, in a more general sense, parents can think about leaving a child alone for short trips to the market somewhere between ages 11 and 13. As a child grows older and becomes more comfortable and competent being on their own, parents can extend the amount of time they are away from the home, whether that's for a few hours or an entire day.
Video: Child safety tips for summer vacation
Signs your child is mature enough to stay home alone
First and foremost, it's important to gauge your child's comfort level with staying home alone. While some children might be all for it (Hooray, no parents.), others might experience some anxiety.
"The most important sign the child is ready to be left alone is that the child expresses comfort with the idea," says Pearlman. "If your child is afraid or extremely nervous, it may not be the right time to leave the child."
The next factor to consider is maturity level. Some children mature faster than others, which could lend to their potentially being able to stay home alone at an earlier age. However, that isn't always the case.
Suzanne Hayes, a freelance writer and mom of three, says she couldn't leave her children, who range in age from 10 to 16, home for longer than a half hour up until last year. "If I left them longer than that, chaos ensued," she tells Yahoo Life. "Fights were inevitable. I would get texts at work saying, 'Mom, Emmet is scratching me and teasing me about my hair,' or, 'Mom, Nora said my drawing isn't good,'"she says. "I could not referee from a phone while working."
"They did not have the skills to self-regulate and avoid or solve confrontation," she continues. "It was a stressful nightmare for all involved. By the time I did get home, everyone was stressed and mad at each other and it set us up for an unpleasant evening after an already unpleasant day."
Pearlman suggests reflecting on these questions before deciding whether or not your child is old enough to stay home alone during summer vacation.
Is your child able to take care of their basic needs with confidence?
Does your child have a good grasp of what to do in a variety of emergencies?
Will your child be able to call 911 confidently?
Does your child feel comfortable asking for help when they are having trouble?
Generally, does your child make good decisions?
What should the rules be when kids are home alone?
What's OK and what's not when a kid is home alone will vary from family to family, but Pearlman has a few rules she recommends across the board.
There should be no use of the stove or oven (unless you're talking about older teens who have experience with cooking).
Children should also be instructed that no one else is allowed over to the home unless they have been pre-approved. You don't want children opening the door to let someone in.
Parents may want to establish rules for the amount of time on screens or which devices are permissible to use when a parent is out.
Marie Blackwelder, a mother of three kids who range in age from 7 to 16, has similar rules for her children when left home alone: "Don't answer the door for anyone at all, keep your phone near you at all times, be nice to your brother and call us if there are any issues."
What can kids do when they're home alone?
It's highly unlikely that children will opt to do homework or clean the house when home alone, so to expect that can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, Pearlman suggests parents plan activities, movies, games and food that will make it fun for children to be on their own.
"If it goes well, children will be excited to be left on their own, gain a good sense of independence and build their confidence," she says.
Hayes sometimes makes a schedule for her kids to keep them from getting bored while at home alone.
"Every now and then, I do make a full schedule for them to follow because structure is so important," she says. "Once their minds decide they are bored, everything goes downhill. On occasion I've made itineraries for them that list specifically what's for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a given day in addition to activities to do throughout the day with times and supplies."
On that schedule, some of the activities Hayes lists include tie-dying t-shirts, having silly string fights outside, setting up scavenger hunts, giving each other makeovers and making slime.
Blackwelder says there wasn't too much structure aside from workbooks and reading when her children were left home alone at younger ages. "I am a huge advocate of the summer bridge books," she says, "so the kiddos had to spend 15 minutes working through their workbook and 30 minutes reading before any devices or TV."
"Other than the workbooks and reading there wasn't too much structure, but they enjoyed puzzles, games and playing together."
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