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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Leaving Children Home Alone

Many parents work outside of the home and may not have flexible schedules that allow them to be home when their child gets out of school. Some parents have friends or family members who can watch their children after school. In certain communities, schools or other organizations offer formal "after school" programs for working parents, but these programs may not fit into a family's budget.

Although it can be challenging to find safe and affordable child care for your school-aged child, it is generally recommended that children younger than age 10 never be left at home alone. In some states it is even illegal to leave children younger than age 10 home alone on a regular basis.

So when is it OK for parents to leave a child home alone, either for a short period or on a regular basis? By the age of 11 or 12, some children can stay home alone safely for up to a few hours, but remember that every child matures at a different rate. Therefore, it is not just the age that matters in making your decision. To stay alone safely at home, your child must be mature enough to handle any potential emergency or stressful situation that may arise. Be sure that your child feels safe and secure, and wants to stay at home alone. In addition, he should be able to understand and follow important instructions without forgetting anything.

If you leave your child home alone:

  • Make sure your child knows how to reach you. By your home telephone, post a phone number where you can be reached at all times, along with any emergency numbers. Also, include the telephone number of a trusted adult, in case you are not available.
  • Have your child check in with you when he first gets home and then regularly until you or another adult gets home.
  • Teach your child basic safety rules:
    • Do not enter your home if a door isn't closed all the way, a window is open or broken, or a strange car is in the driveway.
    • After arriving home, keep all windows and doors locked.
    • Call 911 in case of emergency. (In many areas, when this number is dialed from your home phone, the dispatcher can find out the phone number and location.)
    • In case of fire, get out of the house as quickly as possible. Call for help from a neighbor's house.
    • NEVER let anyone into the home without your permission. If someone knocks on the door, your child should not open the door. Your child should tell the person knocking that her mother or father is home, but is unable to answer the door at the moment.
    • NEVER let a caller on the phone know that there is no adult home. Teach your child to say that you are busy and take a message. Otherwise, your child should use the answering machine to screen calls.
    • Do not use the stove, oven, microwave, space heaters or other heat-producing appliances while home alone, unless specifically given permission to do so.
  • Give your child a chance to practice handling emergency situations by acting them out together. For example, pretend that a fire starts, a sibling can't stand up after falling off the swing set, a stranger knocks on the door, or someone calls on the phone asking for you.
  • Make sure your child knows his full name, phone number with area code, and address, including city and state.
  • Agree on a set of house rules that outline expectations for:
    • Completing homework
    • Helping with household chores
    • Talking on the telephone
    • Watching television
    • Using the computer or electronic games
    • Making and eating snacks or meals
  • In addition, set rules for having friends over or going over to a friend's house. The best rule is often "No visitors, no exceptions."
  • Tell your child what time you will be home and do not be late. If you must change your plans, call to let your child know.

Last updated March 11, 2008