Leaving Your Child Home Alone
As your child grows up, they (and you!) may look forward to more freedom. How do you decide when to leave them home alone?
Anyone with infants or young kids is well aware of the vast tactical maneuvers required for a trip to the grocery or a run to the dry cleaners. Sometimes, just getting out the front door with a small child takes serious logistics. Parents often long for the day when they can make a quick, unaccompanied trip to the market for a gallon of milk with just keys, cash and a license. But when will that day arrive – at what age can a child be left at home alone?
While some states have legal regulations or public policy requirements governing this issue, the majority, including Oklahoma, does not. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous child welfare organizations recommend adult supervision for children younger than 11 or 12. Of course, every child is different, and ultimately, parents need to do what is best for their own child and their own family when making this determination. Fortunately, there are some guidelines that can help.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) states that infants and children under the age of 6 should never be left alone without adult supervision. Grade school children who are demonstrably responsible and mature may be left by themselves (not caring for younger children) for one to two hours during the day, as long as there is access to a responsible adult.
According to OKDHS, middle school children who are self-sufficient may be left alone for up to four hours during the day or evening. They may even be left in charge of one or two younger children, as long as they have easy access to a responsible adult.
Is Your Child Ready?
But how do you know if your child is mature enough or self-sufficient enough to be left alone, or left alone caring for a younger sibling? The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) offers some guidance. OSBI suggests parents assess their kid to decide if that child has the personality, self-confidence and judgment skills necessary to accept the responsibilities of being home alone. For example, is the child capable of following directions and solving problems on his or her own?
In addition, it’s important to talk to the child to determine how he or she feels about being left alone. Some kids feel fear, loneliness, stress and anxiety when left at home without supervision. Some may not even want that responsibility.
Before You Leave
Once it’s decided a child is responsible and mature enough to fly solo, it’s best to have a plan in place before heading out the door. Of course, the child should know basic facts like his or her full address and how to reach a parent or other responsible adult. In addition, he or she should know how to place a 911 call in the event of an emergency. Reminding the child not to open the door for or talk to anyone who comes to the home unless that person is a trusted family friend or relative is also a good idea. Similarly, instruct the child to tell callers that the parent is not available to come to the phone and to take a message, rather than letting people know that he or she is home alone. Letting the child know that he or she can go to trusted neighbors or call them and also letting those neighbors know that your child will be home alone can help your child feel more secure.
Clearly discussing rules and expectations is also important. Are friends allowed? If so, how many and is it limited to same-sex friends only? How often do you expect your child to check in with your via text or call? Parents should also communicate what activities are off-limits or if certain chores or homework needs to be completed.
Leaving a child alone for the first time can be a stressful experience for all involved, but with proper planning, it can also be a great opportunity for learning and growth. Clear expectations, adequate safeguards and reliable resources go a long way toward avoiding any Macaulay Culkin-like mishaps and ensuring a safe and rewarding experience for all.