Factors to Consider Before Leaving Your Child
This article was originally published in TulsaKids’ July 2019 magazine. It has since been updated.
At some point, most parents must tackle the difficult decision of when a child is ready to stay at home alone. There is no law in Oklahoma regarding a specific age at which it becomes legal. In fact, it appears that only three states have such laws. In Illinois, a child must be 14 years old, while an 8-year-old may be left alone in Maryland. In Oregon, a child must be 10 years old. The wide range of ages may be due, in part, to the fact that some children are ready to stay at home alone earlier than others. Perhaps this is also why so many states refrain from making laws involving a minimum age.
If you are faced with making this decision, there are a number of factors to consider. One of the main considerations is the length of time the child will be left alone. Rather than beginning with an extended period of time, I’d suggest starting with a few very brief excursions. A 10- to 15-minute jaunt to QuikTrip might be a good start. If the child does well with this, you may consider leaving her for a longer errand, such as the grocery store. Increasing the time intervals gradually will likely make things easier for both you and your child.
One of the first things you will want to explore is how your child feels about staying home alone. If your child is uneasy or afraid, you may want to consider delaying this milestone event. It is important that the child feels confident in this situation. A discussion with the reluctant child may lead to a better understanding of the uneasiness. A parent may then be able to do some things to alleviate the child’s fears.
Another factor to consider is whether the child will be staying alone during the day, evening or night. I suggest making your first outings during daylight hours. There is less risk of the child becoming frightened. The idea is to create a situation in which the child will be successful, and then to build upon it.
A parent must also take into consideration how many children will be left at home. One child may be ready to handle this experience, but this same child may not be prepared to care for younger children in the home. The personalities of the children must also be considered. When my sons were growing up, I found myself in an odd predicament. Each one was fully capable of staying at home alone. However, they were not capable of staying at home together. Fights would break out and things would be broken. Even into their teens, one of them would need to come with me or be somewhere else entirely. These types of individual circumstances must be anticipated
A parent should also realistically evaluate the child before making this decision. Some children are rule followers, while others are rule breakers. It is important to consider whether your child will follow your safety rules. When contemplating this, a parent may even find that a particular child can be trusted at the age of 10, but not trustworthy later as a teen.
When making the decision to leave a child alone, a parent must consider actual safety factors. Is the neighborhood safe, or is it in a higher crime area? Do the smoke alarms work? Will you, or another trusted adult, be close enough to reach the child quickly in the event of an emergency? Do you have an alarm system?
When you are ready to consider the possibility of leaving your child unsupervised, take all possible precautions to address safety concerns. This may be a good time for you and your child to both have access to a cell phone. A quick text or call may serve to make both the child and the parent feel more comfortable. If your child will need to fix a meal or snack, make sure there are foods at home which don’t require cooking. This will help to reduce any risk of fire. Make sure your child knows what to do if a visitor comes to the door. This may be a good time to invest in an alarm system. Many come with a panic button and will also notify the police of your emergency. The sound of the alarm may be enough of a deterrent in most cases.
Typically, nothing eventful will occur while you’re away. However, you must be prepared. I had a frightening episode happen to me when I was young. On one occasion, I was sick and staying home from school alone. A couple of teenagers did try to break into my home. I was mature and trustworthy, and I knew what to do. I locked myself in a room, called 911, and called my mother at work. You must be prepared for these improbable occurrences. Ask yourself whether your child would be able to handle such an event.
Most parents struggle with the decision about when a child is ready to be left alone at home. When a trustworthy child is adequately prepared for this responsibility, there are actually benefits for the child. It fosters a sense of independence, and it can boost a child’s self-confidence. Prepare your child and your home. Start small, prepare your child with safety information, and slowly build upon the successes.
Tips for Parents
Once you have determined that your child is ready to stay home alone, the following suggestions may help you to prepare your child and to feel more comfortable about leaving him or her home alone:
- Have a trial period. Leave the child home alone for a short time while staying close to home. This is a good way to see how he or she will manage.
- Role play. Act out possible situations to help your child learn what to do, such as how to manage visitors who come to the door or how to answer phone calls in a way that doesn’t reveal that a parent is not at home.
- Establish rules. Make sure your child knows what is (and is not) allowed when you are not home. Set clear limits on the use of television, computers and other electronic devices, and the internet. Some experts suggest making a list of chores or other tasks to keep children busy while you are gone.
- Discuss emergencies. What does the child consider an emergency? What does the parent consider an emergency? Have a code word that the parent and child can use in the event of any emergency.
- Check in. Call your child while you are away to see how it’s going, or let them know they’ll have a trusted neighbor or friend check in on them.
- Talk about it. Encourage your child to share his or her feelings with you about staying home alone. Have this conversation before leaving your child and then, when you return, talk with your child about his or her experiences and feelings while you were away. This is particularly important when your child is first beginning to stay home alone, but a quick check-in is always helpful after being away.
- Don’t overdo it. Even a mature, responsible child shouldn’t be home alone too much. Consider other options, such as programs offered by schools, community centers, youth organizations, or faith-based organizations, to help keep your child connected and involved.
- Follow up. After a child is left home alone, talk about his or her experience. How did he or she feel about it? Was your child nervous? Did anything unexpected come up? If the child was watching a younger sibling, ask how he or she felt about doing so.
Source: Child Welfare Information Gateway. This publication is available online at childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/homealone.pdf.