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Staying home alone is an important part of growing up. If a child is supervised at all times throughout childhood and the teen years, he won't be able to move out on his own. (This might be the case if there is a developmental delay or behavioral problems that make it not safe for that person to be alone.) The age at which kids are able to be alone varies on the child and the situation. Parents must take many things into account when considering leaving a child alone.
- Maturity of the child. Do they know what to do if someone knocks at the door? Can they prepare a simple meal? Will they follow general safety rules, such as not wrestling with a sibling or jumping on the trampoline unsupervised? Will your child be scared alone? Do they know how to call you (or 911) in case of problems or a true emergency? Do they understand activities that are dangerous and need to be avoided when unsupervised?
- Readiness. Is your child asking for the privilege of being left alone or are they afraid to be alone? Forcing a child who is afraid to stay alone can be very damaging. Only allow kids to stay alone if they want to and are capable of the responsibility.
- Behavior. Some kids are typically rule followers. Others are not. If your child has problems following rules while supervised, he is not ready to be left alone. Dangers are more likely to come if kids are risk takers and cannot control their behaviors. House fires, hurt pets, physical fights among siblings, kids wandering the neighborhood, and online behaviors that put kids at risk are but a few ways kids who don't follow rules can get hurt. Even if kids used to be able to be unsupervised, things change. If you think a child or teen is depressed or is using drugs or there are other concerns, it might not be safe any longer to leave a person unsupervised.
- Number of children and their ages. Kids can supervise younger siblings as long as they are mature enough and the dynamics between the two allow for it. Two kids of similar ages can keep each other company if they are able to be responsible alone and not fight. Some children can stay alone, but are not yet ready to take care of younger siblings. If they can do it when parents are home, they might be ready for unsupervised babysitting. In Kansas kids must be 11 years of age to watch non-siblings, but there is no law for siblings. Leaving an 11 year old alone with a 0-2 year old is much different than with a school aged child! You must know your kids and their limitations.
- Left alone or coming home to an empty house? If you leave kids home, you can first be sure doors are locked and kids are prepared. If they will be coming home to an empty house (such as after school), there are a few more things to consider. Will they be responsible to keep a house key? Is there an alternate way in (such as a garage code)? Do they know how to turn off the house alarm if needed? How will you know they made it home safely?
- Pets. If there are pets in the home, is your child responsible to help care for them? Can they let the dog out? Can they take the dog for a walk? Do they have to remember to feed the pets? Does your pet have a good nature around the kids?
- Neighborhood. Where you live makes a difference. Do you live on a quiet cul-de-sac or a busy street? In a single family home or an apartment building? Do you have a trusted neighbor that your child can call in case of emergency? Is there a neighbor that your child seems to be afraid of? Are there troublemaker kids down the street? Do all the kids play outside after school with a stay at home mom supervising? (If you will allow your child to go out expecting that the other parent will be there, be sure to talk with that other parent first to be sure it is okay -- the parent might not want that responsibility.) If you don't know neighbors what can your child do if there is a problem? Is your child allowed to go outside when you're not home and under what conditions (with a group of kids, with your big dog, on foot only or on a bike, daylight/dark, etc)? If they can go outside who do they tell where they are going and when they will return? Are there area limitations of where they can go? Run through scenarios of what to do if someone they don't know (or feel comfortable with) tries to talk to them.
- Gradual increases in time alone are helpful. You can start by doing things in the home where you tell kids you don't want to be disturbed for 30 minutes unless there's an emergency. Let them know it is practice for staying home alone to show responsibility. When they do well with that, try going to a neighbor's house briefly. When they're ready, make a quick run to the store. Gradually make the time away a bit longer.
- Time of day. Start with trips during daylight hours when they don't need to make any meals. Only leave kids alone when dark outside if they are not scared and they know what to do if the power goes out (i.e. flashlights, not candles). Overnight stays alone are generally not recommended except for the very mature older teen. And then you must think about parties or dates visiting...
- List of important things. Make sure kids have a list of important phone numbers. They should have an idea of where you are and when you'll be back. What should they do if they have a problem? List expectations of what should be done before you get back home.
- Are there any no's? While it is impossible to list every thing your child should not do when you're not home, make sure they know ones that are important to you. Having general house rules that are followed are helpful to avoid the "I didn't know I couldn't..." Think about how much screen time they can have, internet use, going outside, cooking, etc. Are they allowed to have friends over? Can they go to a friend's house if their parents are home? What if those parents aren't home? Some kids might be ready for unsupervised time at these activities, others not.
- Emergencies. Go over specifics of what to do if ... (fire, electricity goes out, someone calls the house, a friend wants to come over, they are hungry, there's a storm outside, they spill food or drink, there's a package to be delivered, etc). Quiz them on these type of topics. Do they know what the tornado alarm sounds like and what to do if it goes off? (Do they know the testing times so they aren't afraid unnecessarily?) Can they do simple first aid in case of injuries? Discuss the types of things they can call you about-- if they call several times during a short stay alone, they aren't ready!
- Supervise from afar. When kids are first home alone, you can call to check in on them frequently. Tell a trusted neighbor that you will be starting to leave your child home alone and ask if it is okay for kids to call them if needed. Ask how things went while you were gone. Did any problems arise? What can be done to prevent those next time?
- Internet. This probably deserves several posts on its own since there are so many risks inherit to kids online. Be sure you know how to set parental controls if your kids have internet access. Review all devices (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc) for sites visited on a regular basis. Talk to your kids about what to do if they land on a site that scares them or if someone they don't know tries to chat or play with them online. Be sure they know to never give personal information (including school name, team name, game location and time, etc) to anyone on line. If they play games online, remind them to only play with people they know in real life. If they upload pictures and videos, can the location be tracked through GPS? For more on internet safety, check out Yoursphere.
- For more on staying home alone, see MissingKids.com.