When Are Kids Old Enough To Stay Home Alone?

When Are Kids Old Enough To Stay Home Alone?

Many parents struggle with childcare during the summer months when kids are out of school. Kids throughout Des Moines will be left at home unattended for extended periods of time.    At some point, every parent is faced with the same question of whether a child is ready to stay at home alone or not. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. And there are many varying opinions on the topic from they should never be left alone to Free Range parents who lobby to allow kids to be independent at an early age.

A few years ago, I had a similar conversation with a colleague who was a single mom.  Her work hours had changed and she didn’t know what she was going to do with her son after school.  She called DHS to ask if there were any legal ramifications.  This inspired me to do a little investigating and find out what Iowa law states.

As stated on the Iowa Department of Human Service’s website…The Department of Human Services receives many inquiries each year regarding when a child can be left home alone safely. Iowa law does not define an age that is appropriate for a child to be left alone. Each situation is unique. Examples of questions to help determine whether there are safety concerns for the child include:

  • Does the child have any physical disabilities?
  • Could the child get out of the house in an emergency?
  • Does the child have a phone and know how to use it?
  • Does the child know how to reach the caretaker?
  • How long will the child be left home alone?
  • Is the child afraid to be left home alone?
  • Does the child know how to respond to an emergency such as fire or injury?

There really is no magical threshold for your child to pass to be able to stay home alone.  The National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left at home alone.  But it really comes down to each child’s maturity level and ability to be responsible.  From our own experience, we’ve looked at staying at home, much like any other activity that you have to learn.

You start off on training wheels and work towards riding a bike.  We’ve started with staying home alone for 15 to 20 minutes and have worked up to an hour.  Typically, if I have to run my daughter to an activity that is 10 minutes away, I let my son stay home.  Each time we walk out the door we quiz him with “what ifs”.  A friend of ours called his son, and disguised his voice, while he was home alone.  He wanted to know if he would answer the phone and how he handled himself talking to a “creepy” caller.

Here are a few discussion topics to have with your child before you leave them alone:

  • What if there is an emergency? (How do you dial 911? What is our address? What neighbors are home in case you need an adult’s help?)
  • What if someone knocks on the door? (Are there different scenarios for strangers, neighbors, and friends or is it the same?)
  • What if someone calls? (If you plan on calling to check in you may want to schedule a designated time, so your child will know to pick up.)
  • What if you get hungry? (Can they use the microwave? Stove? etc.)
  • What if you want to watch TV or get on the IPAD or Computer? (Are they allowed to access the Internet?)
  • What if you want to go outside to play? (Are they allowed? How far can they go?)

The article At what age can your child stay home alone? is a great resource on Iowa State University’s Science of Parenting Blog.



What do you think is an appropriate age to leave your children home alone?  Give us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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