Many parents long for the day that they can forgo the extra cost of babysitting tacked onto “date night” by letting their teenager stay home by themselves. Or maybe you are home that has latchkey kids for the first time while parents are hard at work. If this is your family … is everyone prepared?
Here are some guidelines to help you (and your child) decide if the time is right and to help them feel safe and protected (and help you stay calm!) while they are holding down the fort.
What to Consider Before Leaving Your Child Home Alone
When deciding whether to leave a child home alone, you will want to consider your child’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as laws and policies in your State regarding this issue.
Some parents look to the law for help in deciding when it is appropriate to leave a child home alone. Depending on the laws and child protective policies in your area, leaving a young child unsupervised may be considered neglect, especially if doing so places the child in danger. States that do not have laws may still offer guidelines for parents. If you are unsure, consult your local law enforcement agencies.
Age and Maturity
There is no agreed-upon age when all children are able to stay home alone safely. Because children mature at different rates, you should not base your decision on age alone. You may want to evaluate your child’s maturity and how he or she has demonstrated responsible behavior in the past. The following questions may help:
• Is your child physically and mentally able to care for him- or herself?
• Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
• Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?
When and how a child is left home alone can make a difference to his or her safety and success. You may want to consider the following questions:
• How long will your child be left home alone at one time? Will it be during the day, evening, or night? Will the child need to fix a meal?
• How often will the child be expected to care for him- or herself?
• How many children are being left home alone? Children who seem ready to stay home alone may not necessarily be ready to care for younger siblings.
• Is your home safe and free of hazards?
• How safe is your neighborhood?
In addition to age and maturity, your child will need to master some specific skills before being able to stay home alone safely. In particular, your child needs to know what to do and whom to contact in an emergency situation. Knowledge of basic first aid is also useful. You may want to consider enrolling your child in a safety course such as one offered by the Red Cross. The following questions may also help:
• Does your family have a safety plan for emergencies? Can your child follow this plan?
• Does your child know his or her full name, address, and phone number?
• Does your child know where you are and how to contact you at all times?
• Does your child know the full names and contact information of other trusted adults, in case of emergency?
Tips for Parents
Once you have determined that your child is ready to stay home alone, the following suggestions may help you to prepare your child and to feel more comfortable about leaving him or her home alone:
• Have a trial period. Leave the child home alone for a short time while staying close to home. This is a good way to see how he or she will manage.
• Role play. Act out possible situations to help your child learn what to do.
• Establish rules. Make sure your child knows what is (and is not) allowed when you are not home. Some experts suggest making a list of chores or other tasks to keep children busy while you are gone. Limit the kind of cooking that can be done absent adult supervision.
• Create a safe environment. Make sure there are working smoke detectors on every floor of the house and teach your child what to do in case of fire. Practice fire evacuation routes with your children. Keep a flashlight and batteries in an easily accessible place in case of power outage. Show your child where to find it. Make sure they know where the first aid kit is located and that 911 is just a phone call away.
• Check in. Call your child while you are away to see how it’s going, or have a trusted neighbor or friend check in. Make sure that your child has a way to contact you as well; check your messages often and promptly return your child’s calls.
• Talk about it. Encourage your child to share his or her feelings with you about staying home alone.
• Don’t overdo it. Even a mature, responsible child shouldn’t be home alone too much. Consider other options, such as programs offered by schools, community centers, or youth organizations to help keep your child busy and involved.
Safety tips for children: Always call 911 in an emergency.
• Use caller id or an answering machine to screen calls. When answering the phone, never tell callers you are home alone. Tell them your mom/dad is busy and will call them back. Don’t post that you are home alone on any social network sites (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc)
• Never let anyone into the house. Do not open the door to strangers.
• Keep all doors and windows locked.
• If coming home to an empty house – never enter the house if there are open or broken windows or doors, or other signs of forced entry. Leave and get help from a trusted neighbor.
• Stay in the house until parents return home.
• Tell parents of any fears or concerns.
Authors Note: The information in this article was compiled from multiple sources, including these listed below:
If you are concerned about a child who appears to be neglected or inadequately supervised, contact your local child protective services (CPS) agency. If you need help contacting your local CPS agency, call the Childhelp® National Child Abuse Hotline at 800.4.A.CHILD (800.422.4453). Find more information on their website: www.childhelp.org