When can I leave my child alone?

Hi all,

I am a new (stepfather) of a year and a half. My significant other’s daughter has just turned nine years old.

Now, I’m not at all considering leaving her to look after herself (eg, overnight) at this point.

However, I’m wondering what a reasonable age is that I might consider allowing her to look after herself overnight? What would be the signs I should look for that would give me a measure of peace of mind that she can take on this responsibility? Completion of a certified babysitting course? An hour or two, then perhaps several afternoons, and then work up to “overnight”–perhaps checking by coming back at 1 o’clock in the morning, etc.?

How does one go about this? Are there any legalities to keep in mind (Canada?)

Thanks in advance for your help.


Don’t worry, I’m sure you are many years away from being actually able to leave her alone overnight. I am sure legal considerations alone will ensure that…check out this for refernce.

My sister and I occasionally were on our own from the age of 10 (she was 8), but that was 30 years ago, and being alone for a short time was far more safe then than it is now, IMO.

I didn’t start babysitting until I was 12, but that’s a whole different thing from what you’re talking about, which is just being alone, not watching children.

I think a lot will depend on the child’s personality. Is she cool and collected in emergency situations? Does she know that she should never, NEVER open the door to a stranger? Have you taught her all the safe words, and what to do if there’s a fire? Do you have pets she’d be responsible for? Is she curious? Is she the type of kid to go looking for the gun she knows you keep in the bedroom somewhere? Will she try to cook something? Can she cook on the stove? Is there a fire extinguisher in the house, and does she know how to use it? Will she invite her friends over?

Lots to think about. What does your wife think?

No legalities from me, since I live in Finland. Just some observations from an older sister of four.

My brothers and I were left alone for a few hours since I was about eight or nine. Mom would go grocery shopping, but didn’t want to take screaming, fighting kids with her, so she’d leave us to play in the fenced and gated back yard. We lived in apartment buildings or duplexes for quite a long time, so usually there would be someone around whom we could go to if an emergency developed. We also had certain numbers preprogrammed onto the phone so that if something came up, we could call grandma, our aunt, or our neighbors.

Since I have four brothers in total, my mom trusted me pretty early on with things like baby-sitting in the evenings. Mom and Dad would go visit their friends or whatever they did, and they’d be back at around 11 pm, by which time hopefully I had gotten my brothers into bed and we were all sleeping.

I think the “peace of mind” thing might in some ways be easier attained if there are multiple kids. If you have siblings, chances are you have to help your parents take care of them in some way. This means that you eventually have to acquire skills like making simple lunches or changing diapers. I think this might be a way to ease qualms about whether your stepdaughter can handle being by herself. You could let her help you cook meals, for example, and make them simple enough that after a few times, she can make them herself. This way, you can stock the fridge beforehand with food items that she can prepare if she’s alone for the evening and gets hungry. A list of numbers by the phone is also a really good thing; if she knows that there’s always someone she can contact if something isn’t working out right, it will probably give her more confidence.

As to being left alone overnight, I can’t really say. My parents stopped asking aunts to come and babysit weekend-long trips when I was around 15. At that point, my elder little brothers were old enough so that they could pretty much work themselves out–go play outside with their friends, make sandwiches or heat something in the microwave for lunch–and I could concentrate on the one-year-old.

…and I’d just like to add basically everything Large Marge said in the post above me. :slight_smile:

Legalities schmegalities. Sometimes parents have no choice. No childcare? Boss threatening you with the sack? You go to work. It’s that simple.

My son is left alone sometimes for an hour or two. He is too young for this really, although he is a sensible kid with such things as knives, power sockets, and the like (we have no guns). Likewise, I was left alone at a younger than ideal age too.

He knows not to answer the door. If I call him, I call and hang up, then call again. That’s our code, otherwise he’s not to answer the phone. My mobile is always with me in case he calls. He’s been fire-drilled within an inch of his life. He knows the various escape routes, how to operate the latches, he knows the emergency number, and he knows if there is a fire to GET OUT and let the place burn. He knows “stop-drop-roll” for clothing fire. He knows “stranger danger”. All that stuff.

I worry myself sick from the time I leave until the time I return to him. But I need to make a judgement call: what is better for him in the long run? Mum and I working two jobs and hardly being at home so we can get out of the rental apartment/poverty cycle and pay off a mortgage (we’re better off renting - we’ll be old by the time the mortage is paid off and it’s double the rent) so that our son can pursue a university degree or whatever without having to make ends meet? Or indulging him now with a household where mum and dad are always at home, and then having to explain to him at age 18 why he has to go out and work in a dead-end job instead of furthering his education?

I work a blue collar job. I will make sacrifices that my son won’t. Unfortunately, I have to play God a bit and make sacrifices on his behalf too, such as forcing him to spend some time alone in the house.

I don’t like leaving my son at home, but I do it.

Since General Questions is more for a specific question which has a (hopefully) factual answer, let’s try this one out in IMHO.

samclem, moderator

One note on the phone-answering. I think it’s better for a home-alone kid to answer the phone, and if it’s someone s/he doesn’t know, say “Just a minute, let me get my Mom/Dad.” Then yell for parent, wait a few minutes, come back on the phone and say “S/He’s busy now; let me have your number and s/he’ll call you back.” That way, if it’s someone testing to see if the home is vacant, with bad intentions in mind, they are left with the impression that an adult is, indeed home.

Here in New Jersey, U.S. of A., it’s technically child neglect if the oldest person in the place is under the age of 14. Not likely to cause any problem if one leaves a relatively mature 12- or 13-year-old alone unless something unfortunate happens, in which case the parent/guardian can face charges.

When my daughters were at that odd 9 - 14 age range, and I knew they were going to be alone for a short time, I had an arrangement with a neighbor who had similar-age children. We left spare house keys with each other, and the children all knew both my and my neighbor’s phone numbers, so there was always a place to go to or an adult to call in case of trouble.

As far as staying alone overnight, as opposed to for the evening, that’s a more difficult issue. Before about 13 or so, you worry for one set of reasons; after about 14 or 15, you worry for a completely different set of reasons. It vastly depends on the child. With some, it’s no problem; with others (yes, even girls), you worry about finding empty beer cans (or worse) behind the couch the next morning.

Here’s a link to a website with guidelines from various US municipalities, and also links to a variety of resources: http://www.nccic.org/poptopics/homealone.html.

Bottom line: regardless of the legality (some of these are guidelines rather than true laws), you have to decide what’s right for your particular kid. My son is nearly 11. For a couple of years now we’ve left him for perhaps a half-hour, with prior notice (e.g., running out to the store, he chooses not to go, but he knows our cell phone numbers and can call us).

Even though it would be legal / permissible per our local guidelines, for us to leave him alone longer, we would NOT leave him for much longer than that, nor would we want him to be a latchkey kid. He has a key in his backpack in case the nanny is a couple minutes late getting there after school, so he (and his younger sister, age 8) have occasionally gotten home to an empty house - but he will not phone me when this happens, despite repeated reminders. And one time when the sitter got stuck and was quite late (45 minutes or so) he would not answer the phone when I called (we have caller ID so he’d have known it was me). I take these as evidence that he is NOT mature enough to be home for long, nor to supervise his sister.

And I wouldn’t leave my daughter (8) alone at this point, despite the fact that it’s “legal” to do so. She has the maturity and common sense of a 4-year-old.

They are almost all “guidelines” and not laws, basically for the reason TheLoadedDog described. CPS will come after you for irresponsible behavior, but their needs to be room for “seven year old home alone for ten minutes because Mom got held up in traffic” (a situation we may be in next year - he and his six year old sister want to take the bus home, if I munge hours around a little, I can get home about ten minutes before they get off the bus. But if I get caught in traffic, they may have to let themselves in. I do have a few neighbors who stay home, so they won’t be completely alone.)

I was babysitting by nine. And violent crime is DOWN from when I was a kid.

Those two kids in the “Cat in the Hat” book were left alone at a very young age. I’m sure we were left alone (my brothers and sisters) from about the age one of us was 10 or 11. I babysat at the age of 12 for certain. But those were simpler, less legalistic times. I’d say between 10-12 for being home by yourself while parents are out for a few hours, depending on responsibility level of the child and other factors (my daughter is 9 and I’m sure would be fine home alone, but my son can be a bit of a handful so wouldn’t leave the both of them). I’d let a responsible 13/14 year old babysit, but not every 13/14 year old. And I know full grown adults that have no business watching anyone and might be a bit of a danger to themselves.

I was left for an hour or two while mom went to the store or something at 9, but I knew all the stuff like don’t answer the door, answer the phone and say “she’s in the shower” that kind of thing…

I was really pretty lacking in common sense, but after 10 or 11, I was a latchkey kid (with my older brother, who was 14 or 15 at the time, but got home after me due to afterschool stuff).

It’s all very very dependent on the kid. I would’ve been scared out of my wits if left alone at night at 9, even with a big scary dog to protect me. Noises are a lot louder and scarier when you’re alone.

I started babysitting when I was nine, but that was 38 years ago. I feel the world is as safe now as is ever was - but now we have more meddling neighbors that will call CPS at the drop of a hat, so I’m not so sure I would advocate a nin-year-old babysitting anymore. Out of the necessity that TheLoadedDog mentions, my son started staying home when he was 7 while I worked a part-time job. I made sure all the necessary safeguards were in place and drills were practiced, and just prayed and prayed nothing would happen, and it didn’t. He was 10, though, before I started leaving him alone all day, with all the safeguards still in place and drills all practiced. He was 11 when, again becuase of a part-time job, I had to leave him home along overnight. Again with the praying. I started comfortably leaving him alone in the daytime at about 12 years of age, and overnight at about 15 years of age. I left him for several days while I was out-of-town for the first time when he was 17 and had no qualms. Well, none that a worry-wart parent wouldn’t normally feel.

It should be noted that my son has always been very mature for his age, and that an only child can probably get along by themselves better than siblings - most of my friends who have more than one child have to wait until they’re nearly grown to leave them alone becuase, evidently, there are more brains to think up trouble to get into.

It should also be noted that my situations were not ideal - they were necessary. Ideally, I would never have needed to leave my son home alone during the day for short absences before age 10, all day when he was 12, at night when he was 14, and overnight at 16.

There is actually a law here (in Vic. Australia at least) that children are not to be left unattended until they are 18 years old. :eek:

I found out about this the hard way, a few years ago when a friend and I went out shopping and left our boys, (aged 13, 12, 11, 11 and 8) alone for a couple of hours. The boys decided to go to the local park, where the 8 year old fell off a see-saw. The 11 year old, being the responsible kid he was back then called an ambulance for help. There was no real injury except a bruised ego. :smiley:

Friend and I got home to find a notification on the front door to ring the police and the Child Welfare authorities, whereupon we were informed that it is illegal to leave children without full adult supervision until the age of 18. I called bullshit on that, given that kids can move out of home at 16 here in Aus, but I checked out the relevant statutes etc and found this obscure law hidden away. :rolleyes:

Of course, kids have been left alone since time immemorial and such laws are just dumb. Use your own commonsense about the age and maturity level of the kid/s involved, and hope to god they don’t fall off the see-saw while you’re away.

Wow, great answers everyone… that was quick!!

Thanks very much for your responses, all of you, much appreciated. 12+ was what I had in mind… good to know the legal info.


I’d second or third that you check local laws - and I mean town statutes, not just state- to see if there’s anything on the books. I know that in the town neighboring the one I grew up in a woman was charged with neglect for leaving her boys alone overnight while she worked, and the older of the two was thirteen at the time.

Although I was alone myself after school for about an hour a day from 5th grade on, and I began babysitting my brother the summer before 7th grade, my parents didn’t leave us alone overnight until I had my license (after that 1/2 of the time both parents worked at night). Their reasoning was that, although we could “probably” get help from a neighbor we’d wake in case of an emergency, probably wasn’t good enough.

This might be colored by the fact that the only real emergency, during the day, was when **I ** injured myself and my brother was too scared to leave me alone to get a neighbor. Several stitches later I was fine, but it shook my parents up because I was a lot less accident prone than my brother was, and sleeping neighbors are even less reliable than ones who are awake.

I teach high school, and I honest to god would avoid leaving even the most responsible kids alone overnight until they are 17 or 18, if for no other reason than that I have seen some incredilbly intelligent kids have some truly remarkable lapses in judgement. Needs must when the devil drives, but I’d avoid it.

On the other hand, if you are just counting the days until you get to spend truly alone time with your beloved, there does exisit a wonderful institution called the “sleepover” or “spending the night”. 10-14, in my experience, are prime sleepover years, and provided that you are willing to occasionally host one or more strange little girls, you will, in turn, have nights when she is staying other places.