Home Alone: Ready or Not?
How to decide if your child is ready to stay home alone.
Your fourth grader has just settled down to his after-school snack and math homework when his younger sister is invited to a play date. You’d like to take her there, but hesitate to make your son drop everything to come along. You wonder if he couldn’t stay behind for a short while. But is he ready?
At some point, every parent is faced with the question of whether a child is ready to stay home alone. The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 7 million school-age children are routinely left at home by themselves. But there is no single answer to the question of readiness, no magical threshold for your child to pass. Some states have laws that specify an age at which children can be left alone, but neither Missouri nor Kansas do. The only requirement, according to the Kansas City Missouri Police Department, is for parents to judge whether they can safely leave their children at home based on factors such as age, mental abilities, time of day, and length of time left alone.
When is your child ready?
Safe Kids Kansas, a coalition of organizations and businesses dedicated to preventing unintentional injuries to Kansas children, recommends that children be supervised until they are at least 12 years old. Most parents seem comfortable leaving their children for brief periods starting at age 10. But age alone is not a good indicator. To Rami Saffarini of Platte City, whose daughters were ages 9 and 10 when their two brothers were born, it was not just a question of the girls staying home alone, but of them taking care of the toddlers on occasion. “We quickly realized that the younger sister was the more willing and able of the two,” he says.
Each child is different, and some are mature earlier than others. Ask yourself: How responsible is your child in general? Does he follow directions? Has she shown good judgment in unforeseen circumstances? How does she feel about being alone?
Preparations before leaving the house
Before leaving your child, discuss the rules. The City of Overland Park (OPKansas.org) offers valuable safety tips, such as keeping all doors and windows locked, not letting callers know that you are home alone, and never opening the door but making yourself visible so the home does not look vacant. Talk about fire safety, have a first aid kit ready and post a list of phone numbers including poison control (800.222.1222). Set rules for phone and computer use, and make sure you can always be reached.
Gradually ease your children into more responsibility. "The first time your kids stay home alone, it should be for a short time and you should be nearby," says Jan Stegelman of Safe Kids Kansas. Make sure you evaluate and discuss with them how they’ve done, and reiterate the rules periodically.
Teaching home alone readiness
If you feel your child is not ready, don’t push him. Children who are afraid or unwilling should never be left alone. But there are ways to help them prepare. One good method is conducting role plays of various situations, making sure you act out right and wrong behaviors. Have your child attend a class, such as “Home Alone Basics” at Blue Valley Recreation, a local fire department safety program or a first aid class at the Red Cross.
Remember that you know your child best. Some years ago, a log in our fireplace toppled over and fell into the room. While I stood frozen with indecision, our 5-year-old son ran all the way to the kitchen, retrieved the long-forgotten fire extinguisher and planted himself by the log, ready to spray. Not surprisingly, leaving him home alone as a preteen was never a matter of much debate.
Quiz: Is your child ready to stay home alone?
- Is he comfortable and willing to stay home alone?
- Is she consistently responsible in other areas like homework, chores, following directions, or at a friend’s house?
- Can he explain in detail what he would do in emergency situations including fire, intruders and injury?
- Has he developed a routine of approved activities while at home?
- Are there trusted neighbors she could turn to for help?
Eva Melusine Thieme enjoys the joys and challenges of raising her four children in Overland Park.