When you have little kids, certain things are simple. If you're headed out the door, the kids are either coming with you or staying at home with a substitute caregiver. But as your kids get older and turn into pre-teens and teens, the choice isn't always so clear.
At some point, your pre-teen or teen is going to want to stay home alone, and you're going to have to start thinking about whether or not they (and you) are ready.
How to Tell If Your Child Is Ready
Children mature at different rates, so every child will be ready to stay at home alone at a different age. If you think your son or daughter might be ready for the challenge, ask yourself the following questions.
- Is your child generally responsible, and able to understand and follow instructions?
- Does your child understand and obey your rules regarding strangers?
- How would your child handle an emergency situation? Would he or she know how to respond?
- Is your neighborhood safe? Are there other adults close by who could help in your absence?
- Does your child know basic first-aid procedures?
Also, be sure you're familiar with state and local laws regarding age requirements for staying home alone. The majority of states do not legislate the age at which children can be left at home by themselves, but many offer guidelines, and some do have laws that you need to follow.
For example, in the state of Illinois, children are not legally allowed to stay at home alone until they reach the age of 14. In states like Georgia and South Carolina, on the other hand, children as young as 8 can legally be left by themselves.
Ultimately, your decision about whether or not your child is ready will have to be tailored to both your local laws and the individual child in question.
If You Think Your Child Is Ready...
Once you've decided that your pre-teen or teen is ready to stay home alone, you have a few more things to think about.
What Will Your Child Do?
When children first start staying home alone, they often need a set of guidelines about what they should be doing while you're gone. If your child is still young, you might consider making a schedule that your child can follow, or leaving them with some ideas about activities they can do. For example, they might:
- Prepare/eat a snack
- Read a favorite book
- Play a game
- Finish homework
- Clean their bedroom
- Watch a movie
Set Ground Rules Before You Leave
Be clear about the rules you expect your child to follow while you're away. Discuss your expectations about the following:
- Television use
- Internet access
- Friends coming over
- Dealing/arguing with siblings
- Cooking/using the kitchen
- Answering the door
- Playing outside
As a parent, you have a lot to think about before you leave.
Make sure that your home is well child-proofed. Alcohol, medications (prescription or over-the-counter), firearms, and extra sets of car keys all need to be placed safely out of reach. You may want to consider removing items like matches, lighters, and knives, depending on your child, and you need to make sure that the parental controls on your television and computer are turned on and working correctly.
Make sure you leave everything your child will need. It's important that your child can easily find and reach items that he or she may need while you're away. Leave healthy snacks in the kitchen. Be sure the first-aid kit, batteries, and flashlights are readily available in case of an emergency.
DON'T forget contact information and emergency phone numbers. Your child should know how to reach you and who to call in case you aren't available. Post a list of phone numbers for the doctor, police, and fire department on the refrigerator. Also, make sure that your child knows how to call 911 and can repeat your address.
A lot of parents (and children) find that practicing first gives everybody more peace of mind later.
Role play pretend scenarios. Role playing helps kids to get an idea of what they should do in a variety of situations. For example, you can role play what they would do if they smell smoke, or if severe weather arises, or if a stranger knocks on the door.
Start with a friend. Some kids like to stay home with a friend or trusted relative (who is not a babysitter) before they go completely solo. This allows them to gradually get a sense of what it's like to be more independent. If you go this route, just be sure that it's a friend you trust, and that the parents know you won't be there.
Try a 15- or 30-minute trial run. It's okay to start small. Before leaving your child alone for large blocks of time or when you're far away, try leaving them for just a few minutes while you make a quick trip to the store. Once there are no problems, then you're ready to leave them alone for longer periods of time.
If your child meets the necessary age requirement in your state, and you feel like he or she is mature enough to handle the responsibility of staying home alone, then there's a good chance that you no longer need to be dragging him or her along everywhere you go.
Work through the steps above to ensure that you're both prepared to take this new step, and then relax. Giving your children more independence is hard, but it's part of growing up. For them, and for you.