Finding good babysitters can be expensive and challenging. It’s no wonder that parents are often eager for the oldest to be “old enough” to watch himself/herself and/or younger siblings. The question is, “What is the magic age when a child is old enough to be left alone?”
You may be surprised to know that most states do not have laws governing at what age a child is old enough to be left alone at home for any amount of time. The decision is left to parents. Of course this means that most parents use good judgement, but the news loves to point out the parent who’s brain malfunctioned when thinking a 5 year-old is old enough to watch an infant, 1 year-old, and 3 year-old (and shock, gasp, something awful happened when the 5 year old couldn’t handle an emergency).
Most kids are not developmentally mature enough to handle an emergency until about 11 or 12 years old. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) advises parents find “structured supervision” (sounds nicer than a babysitter, right?) until this age. However, age alone shouldn’t determine readiness (I know some 15 year-olds I wouldn’t trust with a pet, let alone another child). If you can honestly answer yes to these questions, your child is probably ready.
- Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
- Can your child fix a meal (and be reliable to handle an oven or stove) if the time he/she is going to be left falls over a meal time?
- Does your child know when to call 911?
- Does your child handle emergencies well?
- Does your child know basic first aid?
- Is your child safety-conscious (e.g. know not to answer the door to strangers, etc.)?
- Can your child handle the needs associated with younger siblings (e.g. change a diaper)?
Your individual family dynamics will play a big part in your decision when to leave older children alone and/or in charge of siblings. Require a child to be older and more mature if there are many younger siblings or the youngest ones are under 3 years-old. Only an older teen should be left with an infant younger than 6 months, or with many children (generally 3 or more).
In the beginning, go for short periods of time and only nearby (e.g. maybe to a neighbor’s house for a few mins). Try to avoid going at night until children are older (nighttime can be very frightening for a child). It is also helpful to set rules ahead of time on whether or not you will allow friends over while you are gone, what media the kids can engage in, what activities can be done, etc. It may also help to review various scenarios with your child (e.g., what to do if someone comes to the door, what to do if someone gets hurt). You know your child best. Even though it is tempting, don’t leave your child alone if you have doubts. Better safe than sorry.