When is a child or teenager ready to stay home alone? The answer depends upon your child. Most youngsters will show signs of readiness for this milestone. Contact your county social service agency and ask for local guidelines on the age children legally can be left alone. As a general rule, you should not leave a child younger than 12 at home alone. However, you should not only consider your child's age, but also his or her maturity level.
Signs of readiness
- The ability to lock and unlock the door.
- The ability to use the telephone accurately.
- The ability to prepare an appropriate snack.
- A reliable ability to follow reasonable guidelines.
- The ability to read and write notes.
- A reliable ability to show good judgment.
- An interest in independence and a lack of reluctance and fear.
- An ability to handle unexpected situations in a positive way.
- An ability to amuse himself or herself safely without supervision.
- An ability to make safe/good decisions.
Staying alone after school
If you decide your child is ready, set up the situation for success:
- Look into other options, such as after-school day care, before deciding.
- Make clear, firm rules about the behavior you expect. Talk about the
consequences of misbehaving.
- Emphasize that safety is your main concern, not trust or mistrust of your child.
- Make sure your home has working smoke alarms on every level and in every bedroom, secure deadbolts and locks, a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit and emergency contact phone numbers posted next to the phone.
- Make sure your child knows to never enter your home if a window is broken, door is open or a light is on. Anything that is different may signify someone is in the home who shouldn't be. Tell your child to go to a trusted neighbor's house for help and to call the police.
- Have your child check in with you or an alternate adult (a trusted neighbor or caregiver) as soon as he or she gets home.
- Teach your child why it is important not to reveal to anyone, either over the telephone or at the door, that he or she is home alone. Your child should say, "My mom (or dad) is not available right now. Can I have her call you when she is ready?"
- Insist that your child lock all doors when home alone.
- Encourage your child to tell you about any fears or concerns about staying home alone.
- Make the choice to stay alone after school a family choice, not simply a jobrelated decision.
Being home with younger siblings
Being "old enough" is not the only measure of a child's readiness to care for
younger brothers or sisters alone. An older caregiver also needs:
- An understanding of younger children. Your older child should realize small children do not have the same ability to reason that an older person has.
- Emergency training, including basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
- Telephone numbers of those who can help in an emergency. Include backup numbers for occasions when you can't be reached.
- Dealing with friends. Parents who are able to control their children may be unable to control their children's friends. Be sure to have the following tips in mind before deciding to leave your child alone with friends:
- Make and enforce clear rules.
- How many friends may visit? Which ones?
- What are they allowed and not allowed to do?
- What are the consequences of breaking rules?
It may be wise to have a trusted adult check on the children periodically. If your child is not ready to stay home alone, here are some alternatives to consider:
- Area day care centers may offer before- and after-school care or summer programs.
- Another parent may be able to share care. You can watch his or her child at one time and he or she can take yours at another time.
- Day camps are offered by many local organizations.