Home alone: When is a child old enough to stay alone?

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If you're in need of a babysitter but don't know what the going rate is these days, you should check out UrbanSitter's 2017 National Childcare Rate Survey, which shows how much parents are paying their babysitters based on where they live. The nationwide average is $15.20 an hour for one child, but the rate varies throughout the country. San Francisco had the highest rate of $17.34 an hour. Denver was the country's least expensive city for a sitter, at $12.22 an hour for one kid.

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Several factors go into deciding if a child is ready to stay at home without a babysitter when parents are gone.

None of them have to do with how much the child pouts about it or tries to guilt you, or, alas, that the concert you were planning to go to ALONE is the last time the artist will ever tour.

Explore»RELATED: More AJC parenting news, kids tips and information here

Sorry about Elton John and all, but it's critical that kids only say "bye" to babysitters once they're mature enough, according to a fact sheet from the federal Child Welfare Information Gateway. "Being trusted to stay home alone can be a positive experience for a child who is mature and well prepared," it noted. "It can boost the child's confidence and promote independence and responsibility. However, children face real risks when left unsupervised." 

As so often happens when you're trying to do right by your children, there are the dual risks of being foolhardy and veering into helicopter parent territory.

"It's obvious that a 5-year-old can't go it alone, but that most 16-year-olds can," noted Healthy Child from Nemours, a nonprofit pediatric health system that emphasizes research and advocacy. "But what about those school-aged kids in the middle? It can be hard to know when kids are ready to handle being home alone. It comes down to your judgment about what your child is ready for."

Don't expect a definitive answer from state child abuse and neglect reporting laws, since they only rarely specify the age a child can be left home alone.

According to CWIG, child protection laws in many states classify "failing to provide adequate supervision of a child" as child neglect in many cases, but don't specify what constitutes "adequate supervision."

Just three states have laws on the books setting a minimum age, according to CWIG: Illinois law requires children to be 14 years old before being left alone; Maryland sets the minimum age at 8 and Oregon dictates age 10.

If you're trying to get a legal boost for your "no more babysitter" argument with a spouse, an ex who shares custody or your child, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service recommends contacting your local police department or child protective services agency for information about specific local regulations or ordinances.

For setting a household policy, though, Healthy Child recommended starting with a minimum of 10 and working from there. "In general, it's not a good idea to leave kids younger than 10 years old home alone," HC advised. "Every child is different, but at that age, most kids don't have the maturity and skills to respond to an emergency if they're alone."

Still riding the fence between wanting to let go and worrying your household will turn into Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (or The Hangover) the second you shut the door behind you?

Reinforce your decision, yay or nay, by discussing different scenarios with your child well in advance of the next time you'd need a sitter. Aviva Pflock, the mother of two girls and the co-author of "Mommy Guilt," told Woman's Day to ask open-ended questions (not leading or multiple questions), like what he would do if the UPS man came to the door while he was home alone. What if the phone rang and someone asked to speak to a parent? "I'm not looking for a specific answer when I ask these questions," Pflock said. "I'm looking for the logical thinking process behind the answer."

You can also base at least part of your assessment on how your child takes care of things around the house, child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun told Woman's Day.

"If he spills something, does he clean it up? If the teapot on the stove starts to whistle, does he turn it off or go get you?" noted Braun, who is the author of "Just Tell Me What to Say." These clues about children's level of responsibility are a good indicator of being prepared to be home on their own.

Once your child is in the maturity range, you can gauge her comfort level, keeping in mind that begging you to stop calling the babysitter doesn't mean your kid is truly secure enough to be in the house by herself, Braun noted.

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Once it does feel right to start leaving your child home alone without a babysitter, follow these tips from HC and Braun:

Make some practice runs. "Let your child stay home alone for 30 minutes to an hour while you remain nearby and easily reachable," HC recommended. "When you return, discuss how it went and talk about things that you might want to change or skills that your child might need to learn for the next time."

You can begin by leaving your child (ideally, age 11 or 12) home alone for an hour during the day, with specific details, Braun noted. "I'm going to the store on Fifth Street. I'll be back in an hour. All the doors are locked, and you have my cell phone number if you need to call me," she said. Once the child is comfortable with short spurts of your absence during the day, leave for a little bit longer, taking a walk with a friend, for example, or doing an afternoon's worth of errands.

By age 13, "your kids should be sufficiently prepped to stay home alone during the evening," Braun said, suggesting that you go out to dinner or a movie to start, "something with a short, specific period of time. If all goes well, eventually you can leave them alone for longer periods during the night while you attend a party or other function, depending on their maturity."

Help your child learn to handle the unexpected. "You can feel more confident about your absence if your child learns some basic skills that might come in handy during an emergency," HC noted. A few good resources include organizations including the American Red Cross that offer courses in first aid and CPR.

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Drill your child in household safety procedures. Before being left alone, a child should know the following:

  • When and how to call 911 and what address information to give the dispatcher
  • How to work the home security system, if you have one, and what to do if the alarm is accidentally set off
  • How to lock and unlock doors
  • How to work the phone/cellphone (for instance, in some areas, you must dial 1 or the area code to dial out)
  • How to turn lights off and on
  • How to operate the microwave
  • What to do if there's a small fire in the kitchen, a power outage, if the smoke alarm goes off or a stranger who comes to the door
  • How to handle it if someone calls for a parent who isn't home

Schedule time to get in touch. Before you leave, set up a schedule for calling. "You might have your child call right away after school, or set up a time when you'll call home to check in," HC noted. "Make sure your child understands when you're available and when you might not be able to answer a call."

Create a list of friends your child can call or things your child can do if lonely.

Set ground rules. Set special rules for when you're away, like whether a child can invite a friend over or go in certain rooms of the house, and make sure that your child knows and understands them. Establishing rules about TV and computer time is also a good idea.

Post important phone numbers — yours and those of friends, family members, the doctor, police, and fire department — that your child might need in an emergency.

Childproof your home. "No matter how well your child follows rules, secure anything that could be a health or safety risk," HC recommended. Lock alcohol, prescription and OTC medicines, tobacco, lighters and matches where kids can't get to them. If you keep a gun, double check that you left it locked up, unloaded and stored separately from ammunition.

Once you've covered your bases, relax. "With the right preparation and some practice, you and your child will get comfortable with home-alone days in no time!" HC concluded.

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