When can I leave my kids home alone?

If you are not sure, trust your instincts.
If you are not sure, trust your instincts.  Photo: Shutterstock

It really is the end goal of parenting, being able to leave your kids at home alone, knowing they will not burn the house down or glue the cat to anything. But it is also an area that varies wildly from household to household. I know parents who would happily leave their kids for a day whereas I start to get edgy after half an hour with my similarly aged kids.

So what is the right age, and length of time, to leave your kids at home?

The tricky thing is that, unlike driving or drinking, there is no legal age for leaving kids at home. We all know that a child's maturity is a very individual thing too. There are 10-year-olds that could run a company and kids verging on adulthood that would walk away from the stove with the flame still on. Like many things in this parenting game, your gut is all you have to go on.

"Parents will usually be the best judge of when a child may be ready to be left home alone," says Brittany Taylor, Educational and Developmental Psychologist at Sensational Kids in Melbourne. "The age and maturity of the child will make a difference, for example parents might feel confident with leaving a 13-year-old who is very responsible at home but be worried about leaving a 16-year-old who may try to take risks when not supervised."

One of the biggest risk factors is not just being home alone but how they would cope if something went wrong. Before my wife and I started leaving our kids for short periods alone we stuck up a chart with all the emergency numbers on it: fire, the hospital and both our phone numbers – they we realised that our eldest son could happily use an iPhone but struggled to understand our landline, having never used such an archaic device.

Taylor suggests that parents set about training kids for solo stays in simple stages. You begin with small absences and slowly increase, make sure your kids know where you are and how to contact you and give them clear guidelines on what they can and can't do.

I started off with leaving our two boys in front of the TV with strict instructions not to eat, climb anything or touch anything made of glass, as our eldest has form for slashing his leg open with an innocuous glass of water by his bed (long story….). But as they get older it can be helpful to give kids something to do if they are on their own.

"It may be worth leaving the child with some tasks or a routine to follow as they may feel bored or lonely at home on their own," says Taylor. "If the child is babysitting younger siblings, clear rules about who's in charge will help – you can come up with a plan of what the older child can do if the younger ones won't do as they're asked or they have an argument!"

Leaving your child in charge of other kids is next-level stuff. I know from my own experience that I was barely up for the task of taking care of children as a 34-year-old man, so go easy on the eldest kids as babysitter. "It's not fair to expect an older child to take on the full responsibility required to care for younger children as their lack of experience may make it difficult for them to find ways of trying to control situations," Taylor adds.

One important thing when outlining the rules of staying home alone is to be crystal clear. Kids are already experts at stretching the rules to breaking point so when you say don't open the door to strangers they might happily let in the postman or a neighbour they recognise (but you don't); best to say, Do not let in ANYONE. Keep it simple.

And above all take things at the right pace for your child.

"If you're not sure your child is ready, trust your judgement and wait until they're a bit older," says Taylor. "If the child is unsure or feels frightened about staying home alone, be patient and reassure them that they'll feel ready as they get older. There's no need to rush into it if they're not ready"