This is a guest post from Patricia Dimick.
You’ve spent years schlepping your child along everywhere you go: running errands, visiting family and friends, and sometimes even work.
And now you think you’ve reached the point when they can be left at home alone…but you’re just not sure.
Here are some things to keep in mind—about your child’s developmental stage and the laws regarding unattended minors—before you decide to take that step.
Your Child’s Developmental Stage
Considering your child’s age and developmental stage is an important first step. Start by asking yourself:
- Is my child mature enough to be alone for minutes or even hours?
- Will my child be afraid if he or she is left alone?
- Does my child know how to react in an emergency?
These questions will help you start to gauge whether or not your child is mature enough to be left at home.
Remember that younger children usually have a warped perception of time; what is actually a few minutes alone can feel like hours to them.
Also, consider how your kids react when they’re afraid. Children who are left alone can easily become afraid and panic if there is no adult around. Sometimes children do irrational things when they feel afraid, which can obviously lead to a dangerous situation.
Finally, have you taught your kids the proper way to react in an emergency (as best you can)? Do they know how to call for help? What happens if they try to heat up food and accidentally start a fire? Do they know how to open the door for strangers?
These questions aren’t meant to scare you; rather, they’re meant to help you consider if your children have all the skills—both physical and emotional—they need to navigate situations on their own.
Most states in the United States do not have minimum age requirements that regulate at what age children can be left home alone. States states list the suggested age as young as 6, while others recommend that children younger than 12 should not be left alone.
Many states do have child protection laws that address providing adequate supervision of children—but even then there are often few details on what is considered “adequate supervision.” That’s because there are so many factors to consider—such as the child’s age, mental ability, physical condition, the home environment, and the length of the parent’s absence—that a “one size fits all” approach just doesn’t work.
Ultimately, then, the decision is yours.
Must-Know Tips for Leaving Children Home Alone
- Teach your children how to react in an emergency. They should have a list of adults that they can call if they need help. They should also be able to call 911 if necessary.
- Let the neighbors know. If you have a trusted neighbor who can keep an eye on your child while you’re away, ask them to keep an eye out for any situations that require an adult’s intervention. They can intervene if a stranger is attempting to get into your house or if your child needs help.
- Practice scenarios with them. Practice what to do if someone starts breaking into the house. Practice what to do if a police officer comes to the door. Practice what to do if a stranger is demanding to be let in because it is an “emergency.” The more you practice, the more comfortable they will be in the case that something does happen.
- Leave them something to do. Children who are left alone often get into trouble when they have nothing to do. Make sure they have enough entertainment to keep them occupied while you are gone.
- Tell them to never open the door to anyone. Mailman, delivery person, friends—nobody.
- Lock the medicine cabinets. A child with a minor pain might decide to take a handful of colorful pills to solve a problem.
- Keep matches and lighters out of reach. Kids are naturally curious and when left alone, they might want to do things you’ve told them not to. If your kids find matches in your home they might, for example, decide to light a candle which could cause burns or get knocked over. As a result, fire could spread in seconds. Make sure you put matches and lighters somewhere they can’t reach them.
- Teach them first aid. They should know how to bandage a wound or treat a burn. Basic first aid techniques often keep a minor situation from getting out of control.
- Put parental controls on the computer. Keep your kids off social media when you are not home. An innocent post about how they’re so excited to be left home alone can turn into an out of control party. Or worse. Tell them not to tell people that they are home alone.
- Get a dog. Preferably a large dog with an aggressive bark. Having a dog will deter just about anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to try to break into your house or bother your child while it is home alone.
- Have scheduled check-ins. Have your child check-in when he leaves school, when he arrives home and at a set point during the time you are away. If it doesn’t check in at the expected time, have a plan in place for how you will get in touch.
- Get your child a cell phone. If your child will be traveling back and forth from school, make sure she/he has a way to keep in contact with you.
Patricia Dimick is a Denver based freelance writer and a fun stay-at-home mom. This passionate coffee drinker loves to write about parenting topics and enjoys DIY projects. Patricia spends her free time playing table tennis or enjoying trips to nature with her precious daughter and loving husband. You can reach her @patricia_dimick.