Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

Recently I’ve noticed that parents have been eager to ask me at what age they can leave their children home without a sitter.  I feel at home, but not alone, with this common question so let me provide some information on the topic. 

First of all, children under 10 should never be left alone, even for a few minutes. If your child is over 10, but still frightened or apprehensive about being left alone, don’t leave them alone either.  

On the other hand, if they are over 10 and showing signs of responsibility, such as getting homework and chores done without asking, following rules and understanding safety measures in your house, and are interested in trying to be left alone while you are out, then you can consider leaving them alone by themselves.

Here are a few suggestions that will make things go well:

  1. Set the house rules ahead of time and make sure your child understands and can repeat back to you these rules. Just what these rules are is up to you, but they usually include no guests when an adult is not at home, never answering the door for a stranger, and never telling a stranger on the phone that they are home alone. There might also be a rule about not using the oven in your absence and how long television is to be watched or the internet used when you are not home.
  2. Make sure your child knows how to respond in the event of an emergency, such as a fire, by talking through such situations and hearing how they would respond.
  3. Post all key phone numbers and any special instructions on a visible place, such as the fridge.
  4. If your children are staying alone after school until you get home, ask one of them to call you – or a neighbor if you are unavailable – as soon as they get home from school to let you know they’re okay.

With these hints in place, you might give your child the opportunity to try this experience perhaps first by leaving him or her alone for a brief period of time, such as 15 to 30 minutes and then increasing the time alone over time.  

Hopefully tips like these will hit home when it comes to allowing your older child to stay home alone when you cannot be there to provide supervision. 

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

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