Staying home alone. It’s a rite of passage for kids—one that some anticipate eagerly (“Finally sitting out the rush hour drop-off of siblings to dance class, basketball, and last-minute grocery store run AND ruling the remote? Yes, thank you!”) and others dread (“Wait, what was that noise? And that one? And that one?”).
In the state of Maryland, the law is clear: children can stay home unattended once they turn 8. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy decision for parents to decide if a newly minted 8-year-old is ready to go it alone for 15 minutes or a few hours.
Here are some things to consider before leaving your kid home alone.
Put It in Writing
Katherine Bissett, a pediatric nurse, suggests it’s useful for families to develop a contract together about safety when staying home alone. The contract should cover basic safety (like answering the door and not using the oven) as well as your unique family values (think screen time, sibling dynamics, and homework).
“Kids who brainstorm with parents and weigh in on the conversation about what they’re allowed to do when home alone may feel more committed to those norms,” explains Bissett.
No More Latch Key Kids
You might be worried about your child using technology when he or she is home alone, but just think of some of the benefits that technology can provide. Middle school counselor Vicki Shields shares how her family relies on smart home technology to make things easier for her family.
“We really love having a doorbell camera and smart lock. We can see when the kids are coming and going and never need to worry about someone forgetting a key,” she explains. “My oldest is incredibly grateful for the keypad because he forgot his keys multiple times when he started middle school…almost always on rainy days.”
Most smart home technology can be easily installed without a professional and the whole family can benefit from not having to carry around keys.
Just a Phone Call Away
Chances are good that when you were growing up, you had an actual phone (and if you were lucky it was in the shape of a hamburger or completely see-through exposing the colorful wires inside). The days of the home phone may be long gone for many, but kids home without supervision definitely need a way to reach out in case of an emergency. Keep a landline, VoIP or cable phone service, and make sure your child knows how to make an outgoing call.
You’ve got the phone line, now you need to realistically consider the best emergency contact. “Does your job allow you to answer the phone, or can you deputize another adult to be reliably available? Kids who have been told to reach out for help, but then don’t get an answer, can feel anxious and abandoned,” says Bissett.
Finally, make sure your kids understand what constitutes an emergency so you can minimize SOS calls about a missing remote control or tricky math problem.
If your child is heading home alone after school, it’s likely he or she is going to want a snack when they get in. But it can’t be just any snack.
“One of the most common childhood injuries is burns, and these often result from kids using the microwave unattended. Heating up macaroni and cheese or hot dogs in water that then sloshes can equal a trip to the hospital and a long painful recovery,” says Bissett.
Create a list of approved snacks ahead of time, ideally including items that require zero prep (no knives, no cooking) and are low on the list of choking hazards.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
“It’s also important to consider sibling dynamics—can your children be trusted to treat each other kindly and without violence if left alone together?” says Bissett. If siblings are being left home together, be clear on your family’s expectations on how they treat each other when there are no adults to intervene.
Practice Makes Perfect
Start small—let your child stay home for a short amount of time before building up to longer stretches. And don’t wait for the first time alone to be during a big meeting or when you have to drive around the beltway at rush hour. Small stints alone help develop confidence to make staying home alone part of a regular routine.
Red Flags They Are Not Ready
Like just about everything else when it comes to parenting, being ready to stay home alone doesn’t always follow a set timeline.
What are some red flags that your child might not be ready to go it alone? Bissett has some thoughts on this topic, too. “Red flags might be as simple as does your child fail to notice what’s going on around them? Do they zone out and get consumed by video games or TV? Do they reliably call you when they need help? Do you notice your children bullying each other?”
If you’re uncomfortable with the answers to any of these questions, it’s probably not the right time to leave your child home alone.