Today, out of 34 million children ages 6 to 13, three quarters have a working parent. As a result, nearly 10 million kids come home from school each day to an empty house. Is your child OK while he’s home alone?
As a child of a working single parent, I remember well being 11 years old and trudging down our empty driveway in the afternoon as the school bus roared away. I’d take my house key from my book bag, unlock our kitchen door and hesitate a moment at the quietness of the house.
Of course, things looked up considerably once I had a bowl of potato chips in hand and “Gilligan’s Island” on the tube. Homework and chores seemed miles away – until Mom called each afternoon with studying orders and her plea to empty the dishwasher.
Today, as a working mom of children too young to be left alone, I fret about the day when they’ll have their own house keys. Just like the majority of parents who work and leave their children on their own after school every day, I’ll be anxious about my children’s safety.
Is He Ready?
How can a parent tell when a child is ready to stay home alone? According to child-care experts, there is no specific age when children are ready to stay home alone, because most children mature at different rates.
Child Protection Services in other states recommend the following guidelines: Children ages 11 to 12 can be left alone for a short time, but not for a complete work shift; children ages 13 and older can be left unattended during the day, but should never be left alone overnight. Guidelines aside, perhaps it’s most important to know if your child feels comfortable being home alone and has the levelheadedness to handle an emergency. DHS does recommend that the maturity level of the child be considered first and foremost.
The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies advises that when considering your child’s maturity level and ability to handle a variety of situations, see if you can answer “yes” to most of the following questions. If so, your child may be ready to be left alone:
- Has he handled brief periods of being left alone well?
- Will he come straight home after school?
- Can he manage simple jobs like fixing a snack and taking phone messages?
- Is he physically able to unlock and lock the doors at home?
- Can he solve small problems himself?
- Does he know when and how to seek outside help?
- Is he prepared to handle an accident or an emergency?
- Will he follow the rules set for him and use his time productively?
Naturally, you’ll need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with your child. Listen to his feelings and concerns. Starting self-care may not be a good idea during a period of increased stress, such as a move to a new home, a divorce or death in the family.
You Can Help
There are also ways you can prepare a child for the experience to ease anxiety. The National Crime Prevention Council advises that parents teach the following to a “home alone” child:
- To check in with you or a neighbor immediately after arriving home
- How to call 911, or the operator in an emergency
- How to give directions to your home, in case of emergency
- To never accept gifts or rides from people he doesn’t know well
- How to use the door and window locks, and the alarm system if you have one
- To never let anyone into your home without asking your permission
- To never let a caller at the door or on the phone know that he’s alone – teach him to say “Mom can’t come right now”
- To carry a house key with him in a safe place (inside a pocket or sock) – don’t leave it under a mat or on a ledge outside the house
- How to escape in case of fire
- Not to go into an empty house or apartment if things don’t look right – a broken window, ripped screen or opened door
- To let you know about anything that frightens him or makes him feel uncomfortable
Practice Makes Perfect
Think about building up hours gradually by leaving your child briefly to run an errand or arranging to arrive home 15 minutes later than usual from work. Ask your child if he felt comfortable and what he did with his time. Encourage him to tell you of any fears he may have, no matter how trivial. With practice you will both be ready for him to spend longer periods of time alone and you can plan a regular schedule of self care.
You might also pose some real life situations for a child to gauge his’ reactions: What do you do when the dog gets over the fence and runs away? What about when your big sister isn’t home when expected? When your brother cuts his finger cutting an after-school apple? What if the power goes out or the toilet overflows?
And teach him what you expect of him with regard to regular communication. Parents today make good use of cell phones, pagers and even instant messaging over the Internet to stay in touch with their latchkey kids. Keep in touch often so you won’t have visions of ongoing soccer games in your dining room or worries about accidents at home.
Don’t worry. He’ll probably learn to unloaded the dishwasher, do his homework without your asking him to and be busy eating handfuls of greasy potato chips while catching the latest episode of “Hey, Arnold!” by the time you get home!
Kathleen E. Conroy is the mother of two children and a writer and editor.