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WebMD Expert Discussion: When Is Your Child Ready to Be Home Alone?

When you were young, you might have babysat for your little brothers and sisters at age 10 or 11. And no doubt, you were quite sure you were mature enough for the job. But now you look at your own 10-year-old and have trouble thinking of him as “big enough” to take care of himself, much less a sibling.

When is a child “old enough” to stay home alone? Even within the same family, the answer can vary from child to child, says WebMD guest parenting expert Tanya Altmann, MD, in the online discussion about Healthy Family Routines. It depends on the age and maturity level of the child, as well as the laws in your state. Some states have limits on how old children must be before staying home alone, generally ranging from 8 to14 years of age.

So as you're debating whether or not to leave your child at home while you shop for groceries or run errands, ask yourself these questions:

  • How responsible is she?
  • Can she prepare food safely and care for minor cuts and scrapes alone?
  • Can you -- or another responsible adult -- be reached easily and get home quickly if needed?
  • Does she know what to do if a stranger knocks or calls?

If you think your child is ready for this new responsibility, have a talk with him first. Altmann stresses that it's important to make sure that the child himselffeels ready. Some children may be a little apprehensive at first. So you can start with a test run -- a quick trip to the next-door neighbor's or the corner store for a half an hour.

Before you leave, go over these important points with your child:

  • Safety rules: never answering the door for strangers, and telling callers, “My mom's busy right now. Can I take a message?”
  • How your alarm system works
  • Emergency contact numbers, including your cell phone, the police and fire departments, and poison control
  • How to use the first aid kit
  • What he can and cannot prepare in the kitchen
  • Rules for things such as homework and screen time

One mom recalls being allowed to stay home alone for the first time at age 9, when she was sick and her mother had to pick up her sister from school. By age 11, she was home alone and watching her younger sister. But she notes that they lived in a very peaceful neighborhood with many retired adults keeping an eye on them. Her own plans for her children will depend on where they live and how responsible they are, just as Altmann advises.

How did you decide when to let your children stay home alone? How young is “too young” in your household?

Discussion led by Tanya Altmann, MD Guest Expert
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Guest Expert What is a guest expert?

Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP, is a best-selling author, a working mother, and a UCLA-trained pediatrician, practicing in Southern California.

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