Home Alone - How Old is Old Enough?
At What Age Should You Leave a Child Home Alone?
There comes a time for every parent when you need to make the decision to leave your child home alone. You might need to run to the store, be at work when school is out, have an unexpected appointment. So how do you decide if they are old enough? What does the law say? What can you do to support your child?
The term latchkey kids is used to describe school age children who let themselves into an empty house. Most sources agree the term comes from a NBC documentary in 1944 about the growing number of children left home alone during the second world war when one parent was away fighting and the other out to work.
Merriam-webster dictionary definition :
: a young child who is alone at home after school because the child's parents are working
What the Law Says
Laws and guidelines vary from state to state. Most classify the statement "failing to provide adequate supervision of a child" as child neglect. However the definition of adequate provision is often not clear. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway there are three states currently that specify minimum age requirements for being home alone. Illinois has a fourteen year old minimum, Maryland is 8 and Oregon requires that children must be aged 10 before being left home alone. Many of the other states have guidelines and recommendations.
A common age for parents to consider leaving their children home alone is when they enter middle school. Middle school children often find themselves with a schedule that is different to the rest of the family. Often finishing the school day earlier than the elementary school, they are now faced with the issue of coming home to an empty house. So should they be home alone? There are many factors to consider before making this decision.
Make Sure your Child Knows how to Make a Phone Call
How do you Know if your Child is Ready?
Children mature at different rates, so age should not be the main factor when leaving a child home alone. It is a good idea to consider how they show responsibility in other areas of their life - homework, chores, following directions etc. Note how they respond in a stressful situation or when dealing with an unfamiliar event. Talk with them about how they feel about being left alone at home, what they think appropriate activities would be during this time.
Circumstances - when/how long?
The time of day that a child is home alone can make a big impact on whether they are ready to stay home alone. Will it be dark? Are other siblings home? Do they need to prepare a meal? These factors will all influence how confident they feel and their ability to manage the situation. Being repsponsible for other children or pets, having reliable adults nearby for emergency situations, length of time they will be alone are all factors to consider when making a decision.
Does you child have the key skills needed to be home alone? Can they use a door key?, make an emergency call?, contact a responsible adult?, stay away from dangers and know what to do if an emergency occurs?, are all questions you need to consider when making your decision.
Most experts agree that a child under ten should not be responsible for another child. If you are leaving you child home with younger siblings it is important that you are confident the younger siblings are aware of self responsibility also. For example, if you require your children to not use the internet while you are not home, all children should be aware of this and you need to be confident they will all follow your rules and be responsible for their own behavior.
KidsHealth from Nemours suggests the following questions when considering leaving your child at home alone.
Does you child show signs of responsibility in areas of their life?
Do they understand and follow rules?
Can your child make good judgements?
Does your child understand about stranger danger?
Does your child understand basic first aid procedures?
What is the Right Age to be Home Alone?
Do you Think Middle School is the Right Age to be Home Alone?
What Can You Do to Prepare you Child?
There are many things you can do to ensure your child is ready to be home alone.
Rehearse being home alone, practice by leaving you child home for a short period of time such as 20 minutes while you visit a close neighbor or walk the dog. Talk to your child about how it went, how they felt, what you could do differently etc will help their coping strategies.
Make a check list of important phone numbers and practice making the calls. It is important to know what information to give when making an emergency call and to have close at hand the contact numbers of the child's parents.
Practice locking and unlocking doors and windows and make sure you child knows who they are allowed to open the door to. Some houses also have house alarms which may go off unexpectedly. Children need to know what to do if this happens.
Learn how to use the microwave/prepare a cold drink if the child is expected to prepare a meal for themselves.
Practice scenarios so that your child is confident they know what to do in a minor event , eg the power goes out or they smell fire. Role play what to do if things happen such as a stranger coming to the door so that they know what to say or do.
Steps to Take When Leaving your child Home Alone
The best way to lessen anxiety for both the parent and the child it to have resources and plans in place prior to the event.
1. Plan a good time for both parties to get in touch. Maybe you want them to call you or a relative as soon as they arrive home, or agree a time that you will call the house that fits in with your schedule. Make sure the child has a list of emergency and non emergency numbers to contact if there is any time you will not be available. Sometimes just checking in with someone can go along way to ensure children feel confident.
2. Set rules of the house while you are not at home. These could include TV, computer time, cooking, friends in the house, answering the phone or door to strangers.
3. Discuss agreed activities for your child to do after school. Make sure they know what snacks are available, any chores that need to get done and anything you do not want them to do while you are not home.
4. Agree a time you will return home and stick to it.
The website Kids Health recommends childproofing your home to make sure there are no hidden dangers.
Have Snacks Accessible and Ready Available
In conclusion, it is important to remember every child is different and as a parent you know when your child is ready for the responsibility of being home alone. If you do feel your child is ready, there are plenty of steps you can take to ensure your child feels confident being at home without an adult. It is also advisable to consider the fact that staying home alone is a different skill to staying home in charge of a sibling, a child who is mature enough home alone may not be capable of managing siblings safety at the same time.