When is it OK to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

Lucas Sullivan/ GateHouse Media

As students head back to school, some parents are confronted with the possibility that their children will be home alone for long periods of time.

Child psychologists, doctors and primary school officials who counsel parents said turning to expensive security options such as smart locks, security cameras and cellphones to keep kids safe should not be the first option.

“Parents should be thinking of a couple of things that include maturity and readiness,” said Dr. Jim Bates, an associate professor of family wellness at Ohio State University. “Are they (children) physically able to lock the doors and windows and use the phone, the microwave, toaster and stove top?”

Massachusetts law does not stipulate a minimum age when children can be left at home alone. Nationwide Children’s Hospital tells parents on its website that most children are not ready to be alone until about age 12.

And even at that age, experts said, it should be for just a few hours — and never at night.

Parents looking at technology should consider adding a few items at a time to make sure children are able to handle the responsibility. Smart locks that can sync to cellphones might be a place to start, some experts said.

These measures can be expensive. Smart locks run between $115 and $275, depending on features. Cameras and smart doorbells are often in the same range. Some technology, such as cellphone apps that track and monitor communication activity, require ongoing service fees.

Communicating with your child and setting clear rules are more important than security cameras and home-assistant technology, educators say.

Children should also be intellectually ready to be home alone, educators say. For instance, they should be able to follow rules, take a phone message, remember directions such as when — and when not — to answer the door.

Parents are encouraged to develop and discuss a safety plan with their children. What to do in case of emergency should be practiced with children.

Give them a list of contacts in case they need to talk with someone but can’t reach you, and talk to a trusted neighbor in case your child needs to leave the house, the agency says.

Parents are also encouraged to plan activities for children to do while home alone, such as chores or arts and crafts. Also make safe and easy snacks or meals for them to eat.

The experience of being on their own can be good for kids, said Bates, who also counsels parents in his role with the university’s Family and Consumer Sciences program through its Extension service.

For parents, he said, get over fears by going to the grocery store or other places for brief periods of time, then talk to the child upon returning about the experience.

And don’t let other parents judge methods, Bates said.

“When I talk with parents ... I teach them different ways of judging themselves to say, ‘Am I being an effective parent? Am I asking my child to do something and are they doing it?’” he said.

They also should ask themselves is they are being influential parents, Bates said.

“Am I influencing their growth and development in positive ways? Are we encouraging them to do good things with their time? Are there opportunities for them to learn?” he said. “Am I attentive to how they are doing emotionally and how they are physically feeling?”