Leaving Children Home Alone

Cute girl with long hair sitting alone near window

My girls were 7 and 10 years old when I decided to leave them home alone for the first time. They were excited and slightly concerned, so we spent about 40 minutes talking through the details about where I’d be, how long I’d be gone, what they could and couldn’t do, how to contact me and emergency phone numbers. I was going to the store about a mile away to pick up one thing and would be gone for about 15 minutes. After all of the rules and ways to be in touch, they decided they were going to sit on the couch, watch tv and not move. While they did just sit together and not move, they were thrilled with themselves when I got home.

The decision to start leaving your child home alone is a big one. There are several things to consider. The first would be your child’s own comfort level. It makes no sense to leave a scared child home alone. The next would be their age and maturity level. Here are the current age guidelines for being left home alone in Fairfax County, Virginia:

Fairfax County’s Child Supervision Guidelines by Age

7 years and under:
Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.

8 to 10 years:
Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.

11 to 12 years:
May be left alone for up to 3 hours, but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.

13 to 15 years:
May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.

16 to 17 years:
May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).

Fairfax County adds that given the age guidelines, it is up to the parent to make a judgement about the child’s emotional and behavioral readiness and ability to manage medical or other issues. They reiterate the child should feel comfortable alone, have a way to contact parents or another trusted adult, an awareness of what to do in emergencies, and guidelines for acceptable behavior.

I would add that you consider rules about eating, food prep, the phone, answering the door, cooperating with each other and staying indoors.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides additional guidelines: .

You might also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker. It is a parenting book about teaching children personal safety, and it has a valuable chapter on leaving children home alone.

It is also important to know that local and state age guidelines for being left alone vary in the United States, from an 8 year old minimum to a 14 year old minimum.

So all that said, I look at these guidelines, not just as minimums, but as goals. If you have an 8 to 10 year old and haven’t left them home alone, good to at least start preparing them. If you haven’t, consider why not and work on those things. Start having conversations about it, practice being in different areas of the house for longer stretches, encourage your child to make their own lunch or get themselves completely ready for bed on their own occasionally. You might encourage your child to make more daily decisions for themselves.

Many children are still getting car keys at 16 years old, and leaving home for college at 18. To be really ready for these things they need practice at being home alone, at handling situations, making decisions and at caring for themselves. At some point they need practice at being independent in public places as well. Car keys at 16 is free run of the east coast (sorry dad), and it makes no sense going completely supervised at 14 years old to being free run two years later.

As a reminder, in 1979 first grade readiness guidelines included your child being able to navigate 4 to 8 blocks of their neighborhood. I get it was a different time. If your first grader were out roaming the neighborhood now, they’d be the only kid out there which isn’t safe.

The idea now is to start when they are young and make slow and steady progress towards them being fully independent. Staying home alone is an important piece of that process.

Want Kids to Play with Their Toys?

Trains are boys best friends

As a parent, I know the familiar frustrations:

  • There are so many toys and activities in the house, and the kids are complaining they are bored.
  • You have to get dinner ready and want them to play with toys, but they are under-foot.
  • They finally find something to play with, and it lasts 6 minutes (you were banking on 20).

Answers:

  • Introduce and then occasionally play with them WITH their toys – When they get a new toy, it can be helpful to play with them with it. Help arrange furniture in the dollhouse or build a lego structure next to theirs. The more you can get down on the floor with them and play, really engage and play, the better. Through playing with them, you are showing them new ways to use the toys and ways to interact. Through your attention you are letting them know the play itself is valuable.
  • Have a stash of toys you can start with them, and they can continue on their own – If your child is good at puzzles, set aside a few that you can start with them and then make trips away. If they love to color, sit to color a page and then take regular breaks while they continue to color.
  • Focus on open-ended toys – Open ended toys are toys that can be used in a wide variety of ways and are often simple. There isn’t a right or wrong way to use open-ended toys. This includes blocks, balls, lincoln logs, bowls, legos, boxes and dress-up clothes.
  • Buy the low-tech toys that “do nothing” – If you are buying a new doll, opt for the one that does nothing. If you buy the one that grows long hair or the one that speaks Spanish, that dictates to the child how to use the doll. It narrows the play. If you are buying a dollhouse, opt for the one that is quiet. If you buy the one that has a doorbell, tv sounds and barking dogs, it lessens creativity.
  • Think multi-age – This means to look for toys like dress-up clothes, art supplies or building blocks that children can use when they are three years old and when they are seven years old.
  • Give them things to do that are like what you are doing – Need them to play while you cook? Give them a kitchen set and put it nearby your kitchen or give them pots and pans with spoons and a bit of water so they can “cook with you.”
  • Provide accessories – If your children like to play dress-up, add shoes, hats and bags. If it’s the kitchen set, give lots of pots and pans, place settings and food.
  • Organize the toys with all their accessories – It is helpful to their play if all of a toys parts are stored together. When they go to play farm, it’s best for all the animals, tractors and people to be right there.
  • Organize the space, so the toys are within reach – To play with toys, children need to have open access to them. Choose low shelves and clear bins.
  • Give them regular practice at independent play – It is good for kids to have real downtime (not screens), and it’s even good for them to get bored. Every day, children should have time to themselves. If your child is not good at independent play, they need more practice.
  • Encourage them or challenge them to keep at it – It is helpful to give an encouraging word such as, “wow, look how tall that tower is,” or a challenge, “can you build it faster this time?” to keep the play going.
  • Limit screentime – The more they are on screens, the less they are playing with toys.

Nurturing Independence

Dear Dr. Rene,

My, just turned three years old, son knows his alphabet, colors, shapes and dinosaurs. He is beginning to spell and can manage 48 piece puzzles by himself. He is very interested in learning and listens intently and soaks information up like a sponge when interested. My concerns are when he has to do things for himself such as turning a doorknob, getting dressed or playing independently. In these situations, he always fights it. He resists and exaggerates his attempts. Sometimes he doesn’t even try, he will just lay down and say he is “resting” until I am able to help him. I try to give him more play time alone, but he has a hard time occupying himself. How do I encourage his independence in situations he isn’t interested in?

Sincerely,

Cynthia

Dear Cynthia,

There really are two issues here. The first is learning to play independently. The second is learning to do for yourself and being able to move forward taking on greater responsibilities rather than continuing to rely on others to do so for him.

To build independent play skills there needs to be adequate downtime. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This may be indoors or out, alone or with you and any siblings available. The idea, though, of downtime is you are not organizing for the child, you are not providing entertainment. The child is left time to entertain themselves. They can also be unproductive if they choose. Real downtime means they can watch the clouds or play with dripping water at a sink if that’s what occupies them. To get good at this, most children just need more practice. This means, stop entertaining them. A little boredom here is a good thing as it prompts play.

To encourage independent play, you might also give them things to do that are like or nearby what you are doing. Meaning if you are cooking, give them pots, pans and spoons with a bit of water. If you are on the computer, give them a leap-pad on the corner of the desk, so they can do their work beside you. You might also give them things you start together such as a big puzzle. Sit together for the first few pieces, and then make trips away.

Encouraging a child to take ownership and increasing responsibility for life tasks is a harder thing. I think the first thing to do is focus on teaching them to do for themselves. If they struggle with parts of getting dressed, which may sink the entire effort, sit and practice that piece. Give them ample practice when you are there to help. Once you know they are capable, move back and give them space to work through. This may mean you are out of the room to avoid doing for them. Think of each challenge as opportunity for them to master the task and to at least learn from the experience.

When they are frustrated, give hints and suggestions to get them back on track. Avoid doing for them. Be sure to give lots of empathy for the frustration and encouragment for the task. Focus your praise on their effort and process rather than the outcome. Notice the hard work and the additional attempts, comment on the time and energy required to get it right. When available, give them opportunity for decision making. Children are much more likely to buy into doing if they are in charge of the process.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

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