Is Your Child Ready to Be Home Alone?
Who's Home Alone?
Many working parents wonder if they should leave their child home alone while they zip off to a client meeting or put in a regular day at the office. But when is a child actually ready for such a coming of age ritual?
A recent U.S. Census report shows 7 million of the nation's 38 million children ages 5 to 14 are left home alone regularly. The data show:
The Trouble with Leaving Kids Alone
"I think the most negative consequences are that they eat poorly, watch TV or videos all day, and may have a higher anxiety level or weakened sense of trust," says Linda Braun, executive director of Families First parenting programs based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
How to Know When They're Ready
On the other hand, a "home alone" experience handled properly -- not out of desperation for lack of childcare -- can boost a child's sense of independence and self-esteem. The key is being able to take cues from kids in order to gauge their readiness.
"It's probably best for your kid to come to you two, three, even four times on this one before you take them seriously," says Carleton Kendrick, family therapist for FamilyEducation.com. "Because kids will often tell you they're ready before they actually are."
One Family's "House Rules"
Amy G., mother of 11-year-old Gabe, let him stay home alone for the first time last summer. The family lives on a dead-end street in a safe suburb. Half their neighbors work from home, which provides a reassuring back-up when Amy's out on an errand. Still she remembers worrying a lot, rushing home 20 minutes after Gabe's first time alone. Now he's on his own for up to an hour every few weeks.
"He's a very cautious kid," she observes, "not someone who would say 'This is a great opportunity to learn to use the stove!'"
How They Do It
Expert Advice to Help Parents and Kids Feel Safe
It's not easy to leave your kids home alone for the first time. These suggestions from Linda Braun, executive director of Families First Parenting Programs and Carleton Kendrick, family therapist, will help you take the big step.
Weigh three factors: the child's personality, your personality, and your neighborhood. Is your child trustworthy, independent, secure, and sensible? Where do you fall on the anxiety spectrum? If you're nervous, you'll transmit that feeling to your child. Finally, consider whether you have reliable neighbors whom your child could turn to for help in an emergency.
Think of age 10 or 11 as a good age to start, although temperament trumps chronological age. You may have a 9-year-old who is mature enough to be home alone, or a 12-year-old who's not. Kendrick believes age 11 is better than 10 because "there is a big difference between the maturity of a fourth grader and a fifth grader. The fifth grader is really beginning to model the behavior of sixth and seventh graders."
Take cues from kids. Kendrick advises parents to wait for children to propose the idea: Braun cautions that if you do, explore gently: "I was thinking that sometimes when I have to take your sister to ballet, you're often in the middle of something and have to drop it to tag along with me. I love the company, but would you ever like to stay here for half an hour while I drop her off?"
Have some "what if" chats. What if someone knocked at the door? What would you do if you smelled smoke? What if a friend calls and wants to come over? Hearing how your child might handle these scenarios will help you get a clearer sense of whether he or she should be left alone.
Establish "house rules." Children should know what to tell callers: "Mom's not available" is certainly better than "no one's home right now." They should also know how to beep or call a parent, which household appliances are okay to use, and which ones are off limits.
Decide what you'll do if "house rules" are broken. It's possible that your 12-year-old may invite six friends to come over as soon as your car is down the driveway and around the corner. be calm and clear: "I thought you understood me when I said you couldn't have friends over. I was surprised and disappointed to find them here. I won't be able to leave you home alone for a while."
More on: Setting Rules for Teens