Is My Child Ready to Be Home Alone?
Is There a Legal Age For Children to Stay Home Alone?
The end of the school year brings a tough decision for many parents, “Is my child ready to be home alone?” Many parents answer this question simply by looking at a child’s age or maturity, but really need to consider both.
Parents may also wonder “is there a legal age for children to stay home alone?” There is an unwritten, unspoken “law” among social service and law enforcement professionals that no child nine-years-old or younger should be left home alone – no matter how mature. Older children who are immature or irresponsible should also not be home alone.
By the age of eight, parents need to be teaching children skills in responsibility and independence. These skills make parenting easier and children misbehave less, make more responsible decisions and are more resourceful in solving problems they face when alone.
To prepare children for being home alone, teach them:
- Basic first aid,
- When and how to call 9-1-1,
- What to do if there is a fire,
- How to fix meals without a stove, to prevent fires,
- How to answer the phone (IF they are allowed to answer it),
- The house rules and see they have a track record of following them.
To learn more about teaching independence and responsibility skills, check out my one-hour audio recording of a live workshop called, “Serve Up Some Wings So Children Can Leave The Nest.” Click here to order.
Before leaving a child home alone with younger siblings, consider these issues:
- No sibling under the age of eleven or twelve-years-old should be responsible for a younger sibling — even if they are the most responsible children in the world! Imagine the emotional trauma should anything happen.
- When the youngest child is about seven- or eight-years-old and the oldest is at least thirteen-years-old, it is safer for them to be alone.
- How well do the siblings get along? Does one torment the other? If so, they shouldn’t be alone together without an adult present.
- How many children would the older sibling be watching? No minor should watch more than three or four children under the age of ten. Younger children (ages eleven to thirteen) should only watch one or two children who are older than toddlers.
- Children should be at least thirteen-years-old to care for infants and need special training. They should know how to handle incessant crying without resorting to spanking or shaking, which many younger children will naturally do due to inexperience or lack of knowledge. Let these children help with the baby while the parent is present, to coach them before leaving them alone.
- Remember, sometimes the older child is not the more responsible one. Sometimes siblings can stay home together but independently. Each is responsible for their own care, without a sibling “telling them what to do,” which can cause conflicts.
Finally, here are some basic rules a parent should set for children who will be home alone:
- No visitors. It’s too tempting to experiment when a peer is present. Also, the absent parent may be held legally liable if something should happen in their home, even in their absence.
- Depending on the neighborhood, children should stay inside. At the least, encourage them to stay on their own property where they have access to a phone to communicate with parents. If older children (13+) are allowed to go places, they should let the parent know where they will be. Parents also want to be sure there will be adult supervision and have a contact number to reach the child.
- No phone calls or limit all calls to fifteen minutes so parents can reach the child.
- Decide whether the child is allowed to answer the phone. If the home has Caller ID, the child can answer calls from familiar callers rather than not answer at all. Parents can also have a signal (2 rings and they hang up) so child knows when to answer.
- Keep doors and windows locked, depending on the weather/climate, air conditioning and neighborhood safeness. Teach children what to do if someone comes to the door and what to do if it is a stranger. Not answering is the best policy. Children should also have a way to watch what the stranger does. If they act suspiciously, they should call the police.
- No cooking on the stove until they are experienced cooks, usually around age thirteen if parents have been teaching and supervising them from about age eight or so.
- Obvious things like no smoking, drinking, or girlfriends/boyfriends.
Once the child has the skills to be alone, start with short periods of absence (ten minutes). Gradually increase the time as you and your child feel more comfortable.
If children act irresponsibly or are unwilling to follow these rules, they need to have a sitter for a brief period. Then get agreements and give them another chance to show they can be home alone safely.
If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about helping children develop independence and responsibility, then check out the recommended resource mentioned in this article:
- Listen to a one-hour recording of a live workshop called, “Serve Up Some Wings So Children Can Leave The Nest.” Click here to order.
- Take a look at the 7 Keys to Parenting Success free ebook.
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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