After a dozen-ish years of toting your child around everywhere you go, the idea of letting them stay home alone for even an hour can feel overwhelming — or amazing — depending on your outlook.
But how old should a child be before they're allowed to stay home alone? And how can parents tell their kid has reached the right maturity level for staying home alone for an extended period of time?
The ’70s and ’80s may have brought "latchkey kids," kids who let themselves into the house when they got home from school and spent a few hours doing homework and watching television until their parents got home from work, but since then, after-school and extended-day programs have proliferated. With the number of children left unsupervised after school significantly decreasing, the question remains about when it's OK to start leaving your children home alone.
The answer only puzzles parents, since whether or not a kid is capable of handling being left home alone can vary from child-to-child.
And laws add to the confusion: Only 16 out of 50 states have prescribed ages when it's legal to leave a child home alone, ranging from 6 in Kansas to 14 in Illinois. And, the National SAFEKIDS Campaign, a worldwide nonprofit organization working to help families and communities keep kids safe from injuries, recommends no child under age 12 be left home alone.
How to know if your child is ready to stay home alone
Erika Leonard is community education director for Kidpower.org, a global nonprofit dedicated to empowering and protecting children by teaching them life skills that set them up for success. Leonard says making the choice to leave a kid home alone starts with preparing children for increased responsibility.
"I've never left an education session without a parent asking me a question about whether their child — at whatever age they are — is ready to do a particular activity," Leonard shares. "Staying home alone is no different." The problem, she says, is this kind of question assumes there's an age at which children are ready to manage certain activities independently and safely.
"The reality is these are skills-based questions, not age-based ones," she says. Skills needed to stay home alone can be taught and practiced at almost any age, eventually leading up to a time when a parent is comfortable knowing their child has the skills to manage situations that may arise.
While age shouldn't be the main gauge of whether a child is ready to stay home alone, according to Leonard, in states where there are laws about age, familiarity with those regulations is essential. From there, it's important to rehearse various scenarios with a child that they may encounter while home alone, from whether or not they should answer a knock at the door to what to do in the event of a fire.
Hold a home alone practice run
"We sat in the drug store parking lot and looked at each other," Clarissa Johnson says of the first time she left her two tween boys home alone while she and her partner drove to pick up Valentine's Day candy. "It was like a whole new level of parenting opened up to us."
They were also nervous and left their boys with a bevy of instructions for emergency scenarios. Some of their missives: "If a stranger comes to the door, hide in the playroom. If someone breaks in, hide in the playroom and call 911. If there's a fire, go outside to the front of the house, stay together, call 911 and then call us."
"Our kids are in their late teens now and laugh about how over-the-top we were back then," says Johnson. "When we got back — maybe 15 minutes later — they looked up from their video games and were like, 'Oh, you're back. OK.' It was such a huge thing for us but no big deal to them."
Leonard endorses this "practice run" strategy as a way to teach skills that will make kids feel empowered when staying home alone for gradually longer periods. "You can practice what to do if someone comes to the door," she says. "You can practice how the child will get help if needed."
Leonard also says parents should identify potential stumbling blocks during these trial runs. "If you've cut your landline telephone connection, which a lot of people have, and your child doesn't have a cell phone, how will they contact someone for help if they're home alone?" Leonard asks. "These are practical questions a family can assess and plan for."
Confident kids are empowered kids
"Our long-term goal is to keep our kids safe but also mold them into strong and independent people," says Leonard. "We have to identify the skills our children need and start teaching them from an early age. For example, when we are carrying our infant, we can say out loud, 'Let's look both ways before we cross the street.' Obviously, they don't have the power to do this themselves, but they hear you say it and it starts embedding in their consciousness."
Developing the habit of listening to your children and offering feedback on how to manage risky situations — like staying home alone — can quickly build your child's confidence in their own decision-making skills, leading to more trust and better a better outcome for the whole family.
Leonard says building a strong foundation of confidence in our children empowers them to be able to take on responsibilities like staying home alone and helps parents make the decision about when they're ready. "You're building the foundation for strong lifeline relationships in your child's life that are made up of trust and confidence," she adds.
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