How to Know if Your Child Can Be Left At Home Alone
So far, only two states actually have legal standards for leaving a child at home alone. Those states are Illinois and Maryland. The rest have some guidelines, but no specific laws about when you can or should leave your child at home alone. There is a good reason for this, as no two children are the same. Even if both children are yours, they might both have different temperaments, maturity levels or capabilities. Which means that one child at 6 might be fine for short periods of time, where a 12 year old left at home for the same short period of time, might be unwise.
So let's discuss some ways that you can tell if your child is ready to experience being left at home alone for anyperiod of time.
The Age Factor
I personally feel that any child 5 or under should not be left at home alone. Even if they are very mature and able to handle the rules you set forth, they are at an akward time in their physical development, where clumsiness and accidents are a higher risk. So even if they understand all the rules to keep them safe, and you would trust them, it's not good for them to be left home alone even for short periods.
As they get to be 6-7 years old, the consensus changes among parents and "experts", as to whether or not the child can safely be left to themselves without an adult or babysitter around. At this point, it is up to you and your child to decide if you want to test the waters with home alone time.
How Long Will You Be Gone?
As parents, we must always keep in mind, that it only takes a few seconds for a child to get themselves into a dangerous situation at any age. There are also a number of hazards that can come up, which may not be your child's fault at all. Even if they were doing nothing more than sitting and reading a book to themselves, the house could catch on fire from a wiring problem or could be set on fire by some delinquent neighborhood kids (or adults). The plumbing could spring a leak and flood the house. An earthquake or storm could happen without any warning. A burglar or robber could break in. Anything can happen. So every minute counts when you leave your child home alone. Regardless of the reason, you want to think about how long your child will be at home alone, as this will make a large difference.
Most experts agree that by the age of 8 years old, some children can be left at home for up to an hour and so on as they grow in experience, trust and maturity. Though what about those 6 or 7 year olds? Would that also be good for them? My thinking is that it wouldn't be a good idea, even for the most capable child. Though shorter periods, such as 10 to 20 minutes might be more acceptable. Again, a lot of this will need to be considered among other factors.
This is a big factor that you'll need to consider, because no matter what reason you need to leave your child alone, or for how long, if your child has no impulse control, they should not be left at home unsupervised for any period.
Impulse control is very important, because it regulates how well a child can follow the rules when you aren't home. If they can't control themselves at even a decent level when you are home, you can guarantee they won't be able to control themselves when you're not home. Without strong impulse control, your child might ransack the house, go outside by themselves, climb on counters and furniture, start a fire, play with appliances, talk to strangers online, let strangers in the house, hurt themselves (or your pets), tell people you aren't home, get into the alcohol cabinet, get into the medicine cabinet, play with household cleaners or they might leave your home all together. None of these things should be done when you are home, and they would be disastrous if they happened when you weren't home with them.
So this is something to consider when you think about leaving your little one at home alone, even for short periods. Whether they are 6 or 16, if you can't trust your child to control him or herself against these important dangers, then they should not be left at home alone.
Does your child have an issue with lying or hiding the truth? It may not seem like that big of a deal, but if your child is going through a time where they are testing the waters of truth with you, then it is not a good idea to leave them home alone at any age. Whether they are 7 or 17, if they would lie to you about the smallest thing, who is to say they would be trustworthy when you leave them at home alone?
If your child is prone to lying, then you could ask them a thousand times to recite the home alone rules, and still never know if they really understand or if they will follow the rules. Lying is also part of impulse control. Many children will get into something they know they shouldn't have, get hurt and then never say anything about it, because they don't want to get into trouble. So what if they swallowed some bleach and didn't tell you until they ended up in the hospital? Or what if they picked up a pair of scissors and cut themselves, would they call you to tell you it happened? Or would they bleed themselves out to avoid getting into trouble?
If your child doesn't understand the value of honesty, then they aren't yet ready to stay home alone. And remember, your child may have been truthful and dependable at 8 years old, yet go into a lying phase at older ages, so this is something to re-consider at any age. Don't just set your honesty standard once and go from there.
Does your child know what to do in case of an emergency? Better yet, have you actually practiced emergency preparedness drills with them or been through any emergency situations with them? It's not simply enough to have them recite what to do, you need to know how they would actually act if something happened.
Do they know what to do if an earthquake happened? Or how to get out of the house if it catches on fire? Do they know where a responsible adult can be found at all times (such as a neighbor)? What would they do if the power went out? What if they or a pet needed immediate help, do they know how to call 911 or how to get help? Better yet, do they know what situations would require outside help, and what situations they could take care of themselves?
Aside from knowing how to prepare for an emergency, you also need to know how your child would react in a panicky situation. If things got scary quickly, do you think they could handle themselves safely without you there? Do they panic when a thunderstorm happens or are they still afraid of the dark? If so, they might not be ready to be left at home alone, no matter their age.
I think this issue is widely over looked by many, but it counts with any child at any age. Emotional maturity has to do with your child's ability to emotionally care for themselves. If they are still afraid there are monsters under their bed, or they get separation anxiety when you leave them at school for the day, then they aren't ready to be left at home alone. You'll also want to be extremely careful with any child who argues with you over everything. If they aren't mature enough to understand that your rules are there to keep them safe, and they argue over it all, who is to say they might not go around testing your rules when you aren't home?
Another thing to think about in the realm of emotional maturity, is whether or not your child is comfortable with being left at home without any adults. If they get nervous at the thought, then don't push them. They might be ready on all other aspects, but if they don't feel emotionally ready for it, then they aren't ready for it.
This is an important issue. If your child cannot contact you for any reason while you are gone, then they should not be left at home alone. Even if there are adults in the area, such as neighbors, your child needs the security of being able to contact you and it's safer for them if they can always contact you. This is especially important when you first leave them at home for any period of time, as they might overreact to light situations, that you can help them through over the phone. Or they might just need to be reassured that if they needed something, they could call you.
This means that your child needs to be capable of using a telephone, remembering your phone numbers and knowing when they should call you.
No matter what their age, your child should be able to do basic things for themselves when you are home or not. Can they make food without using the stove, microwave or toaster and without using knives or forks? Can they get a cup of water without climbing on the counter? Can they wash their hands without flooding the bathroom? Can they turn the tv on and off without climbing on anything?
It is my firm opinion, that your child should have some basic self care skills before you ever consider leaving them at home alone, even for just a few minutes. Some of these skills could be (but aren't limited to):
*Making a sandwich (without knives)
*Getting a cup of water
*Putting on a band aid
*Turning on the television
*Using a VCR or DVD player
*Getting a healthy snack
*Opening a juice box
*Pouring a glass of milk (without spilling)
*Dressing themselves (or changing clothes)
*Washing their hands and face (without playing in the water)
*Getting warm without heaters and cooling down without water or appliances
Many of these skills will depend on you setting things up before hand. You can't reasonably expect your child to get a healthy snack if the only things you have around are bags of potato chips, or if the only good snacks are in hard to open containers. Your child also won't be able to make a sandwich without knives, if you don't have squeeze containers of condiments and easy access lunch meats. The same goes for all the other skills, they take time and practice to master, but they are important even if you are just going to check the mail. At any time your child might decide they are hungry, thirsty or in need of something. You need to make sure they have the skills to meet their needs in a safe way when you aren't there to do it for them.