Parenting is the fullest of full-time gigs. But there comes a time, however, when a kid’s ability to entertain themselves becomes developed enough for dad to enjoy an entire cup of coffee uninterrupted or to complete a workout. Still, it can be difficult for parents to understand what age can kids stay home alone. Eventually, they are old enough and independent enough for parents to leave the house to run a 20-minute errand or make an hour-long trip to the grocery store — but that takes a while. Still, moments of independence can help kids get comfortable with the idea of solitude and even teach them to be comfortable in their own company, a critical life skill.
“It depends on the safety of the environment that you’ve set up. It’s really easy to leave a non-mobile infant — who can’t go anywhere — for ten minutes at a time, as long as they are entertained, they are not upset, and they are happy,” says Dr. Claire Vallotton, Associate Professor in the Human Development and Family Studies department of Michigan State University. “With a toddler, it’s harder because they’re mobile. They’re going to come and get you.”
Younger toddlers are very social, and really need a connection with a caregiver and a lot of stimulation, Vallotton says. At this stage, parents can expect to only have a few minutes alone before they are reunited. With advancing toddlerhood, however, comes increasing levels of cognitive development, and once toddlers are able to sustain play that is driven by their imagination, time away from Dad can increase. This time alone is good for toddlers too, Vallotton says, as it gives them space to be immersed in goal-directed play.
“If they are of a temperament to sustain their own play, and they have the cognitive skills to do that, it’s really good for them to have the opportunity to have uninterrupted time,” Vallotton says.
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Construction games, art projects, and imaginative play such as pretending to cook or playing with figures and creating scenarios are ideal activities that allow toddlers to control their own play and elaborate on it themselves.
Parents will recognize this stage when their kid begins asserting some independence, which comes at around age two. “Parents will know their child is getting to this stage when their child starts insisting on doing things on their own begin hearing words such as ‘no!’ or ‘I do it!’” says Dr. Tricia van Rhijn, Assistant Professor of Family Relations and Human Development at the University of Guelph in Toronto. “Having some unattended time allows children to begin developing their independence and self-efficacy beliefs as they will work through challenges.”
Parents should work up to longer and longer periods where they leave their child unattended, van Rhijn says, and they should keep younger kids well within earshot. A trip to the basement gym might be OK, so long as the child can still be heard. “Parents should check in occasionally to ensure their child’s well-being, and to make sure they’re not getting into something they shouldn’t,” van Rhijn says. “These check-ins should occur more frequently when their children are younger”, as parents gradually increase the time.
How to Leave Your Kid Alone So You Can Get Stuff Done
- Follow their cues. If your toddler wants to complete a project alone, let them—use the opportunity to check some items off your to-do list.
- Remain within earshot. Young kids do an excellent job of destroying things, making messes, and getting into peril, so remain vigilant.
- Wait until they are engaged. When your kid is absorbed in an activity, they don’t need interruptions from you—but don’t force this engagement with TV.
- Check in often. Make sure they know where you are, how to get you, and that you are close.
- Codify some ground rules. If you’re leaving an older kid home alone, make sure they know exactly what is allowed and what isn’t, and who to contact in an emergency.
- Check the laws. Most states leave the decision on when is the right time to leave a kid home alone but be sure to check the laws in your state before venturing out.
It’s important that parents follow their kid’s lead and not enforce time alone.
“Parents should always tell their child where they can be found,” van Rhijn says. “This is not only about meeting their child’s need, but also about respect.”
If a parent needs a window of time to do something important, they should explain this to the child and give a reason why they shouldn’t be disturbed, van Rhijn says. “Having a specific reason some of the time that you share with your child teaches about being respectful and allows them to begin differentiating times when you can’t be disturbed and when you can,” van Rhijn says.
As kids get older, parents can continue to allow them more and more independence, leading to periods of time out of earshot and then, eventually, out of the house.
“Many children are ready to be left alone for brief errands around 10-12 years of age [but] it really depends on the child,” van Rhijn says. Another factor to consider is state laws, which can mean legal implications that trump paternal instinct.
When kids are ready to be left alone for longer periods of time, parents should lay down some clearly defined rules. And there should be some guidelines regarding television and devices as well.
“Children do not need to have everything laid out for them; let them find their own activities,” says van Rhijn. “There is lots of information out there about the importance of allowing children to become bored and the connections to creative development.”