A few months ago, my oldest son got strep throat. The following day he felt fine but was still within the “must stay home from school for 24 hours” stage. I was scheduled to work an event down the street at my other kids’ school for a few hours, and I had anticipated bringing his two younger siblings with me. His illness threw a serious monkey wrench into my plans. As I was struggling to figure out what to do, it dawned on me.
When I was 11, I was babysitting for my neighbor’s two young kids.
My son was 12.
Could it be? Could we have reached that magical age where I could leave him home alone and — potentially (gasp!) — ask him to babysit his siblings for an hour or two? I hurriedly researched the state guidelines regarding legally leaving children home alone, including at what age it was considered alright to babysit for siblings. I was shocked to find that Massachusetts does not have specific guidelines, though many states suggest a child is old enough to spend a few hours alone at as young as 8 years old.
We discussed it together, and my son was beyond excited to begin babysitting. Armed with a list of phone numbers for every neighbor we know, all of his grandparents, aunts and uncles, the school where I would be, and a few of the volunteers I would be with (hey, I was nervous!) he stayed home with his two little brothers for an hour and a half. When I rushed home at the end of the event, I found them all happily snuggled on the couch, watching a movie.
Having a child old enough to babysit is magical.
Since that day, my two oldest sons have relished in the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings for short amounts of time, and my life has gotten exponentially easier. A trip to the store to get milk used to take an hour (or longer) as I packed all five kids into the car and dragged them to the store, undoubtedly coming out with far more than milk (not to mention a few extra grey hairs). Now, I can literally run to the store for milk. For a mom with toddlers, this is seriously magical.
But how can you be sure your older kids are ready to stay home alone — or begin babysitting for others?
This may seem like the most simple of answers, but it is one of the most important. When I was 10, my mom asked me if I was ready to stay home alone while she went to the store, and my answer was an unequivocal NO. A year later, I felt completely different.
Look up your state’s guidelines
Many states do not list specific ages, but some do. Make sure you are within legal guidelines. If you aren’t sure, contact your local police department to ask.
Create imaginary emergency situations, and have your children act out what they would do to handle them. Do their answers make you feel safe? If not, perhaps they aren’t ready just yet.
Rules, rules, rules
Once you feel your child is ready to stay home, make a clear-cut list of “home alone rules.” In our house, the front door must always remain closed/not answered, no cooking is allowed, and nobody is allowed to play outside when mom and dad aren’t home. TV watching is allowed, but video games are not, as my boys tend to get lost in the world of games and pay less attention to the siblings they are caring for. If these rules are broken, the responsibility is revoked.
Have a trial period
Let your child be home alone or in charge of watching a sibling for a short period of time. The first time my son watched his little brothers, I was less than two miles from home and could be back within five minutes if need be. As we have gotten more comfortable with his babysitting, I have ventured out for longer periods of time.
Enroll them in a safety class or babysitting course
Once my kids were comfortable with the idea of staying home with their siblings, I enrolled them in a Safety Savvy course offered at our local library. In this class, they learned the basics of First Aid and CPR, plus many valuable tips about being safe while home alone. This was a very valuable resource, as it made all of us feel a bit more comfortable!
It can be difficult to figure out when kids are ready to be left home alone, but it has proven to be an exciting time for our whole family!