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Home Alone: When and How?

QUESTION: I’m trying to decide if my children are ready to be home alone for short periods of time. I’m thinking specifically of the time after school until I arrive home from work, or in the evening when I attend a meeting or go out to dinner. How can I tell when it’s okay to get by without a babysitter?

THINK ABOUT IT. As your children get older and require less one-on-one parental supervision, it’s tempting to bypass the hassle of arranging for a sitter, not to mention paying for the service. Keep in mind, though, that this decision should not be based on a ‘best case’ scenario, but rather, it should be made based on your child’s ability to handle an unforeseen emergency in your absence.

Is he old enough? The first thing to consider as you determine if your child is ready to be home alone is your child’s age. There are laws that dictate how old a child must be before spending time alone without an adult. Check the laws in your area. Typically, a child should be aged 12 or older before you consider leaving him alone, even if the law permits a child of a younger age to go un-chaperoned.

Is he responsible enough?
The second thing to consider prior to allowing a child to be home alone is the child’s level of responsibility. Take a look at how the child handles homework, chores and personal responsibilities. Does the child display trustworthiness and the ability to self-manage? Is your child emotionally mature and capable of good judgment? Some children show these traits as young as age 10; others, not until 13, 14 or older. In addition to considering these issues, check with your child to make certain she feels ready to stay home alone. Sometimes children are responsible and capable, but have fears about being alone in the house. These fears should be respected.

Do they get along?
The third consideration, if you have more than one child, is whether the children have a usually peaceful relationship. Of course, all siblings bicker from time to time, but if the children fight constantly, physically or intensely, it is unwise to leave them alone.

Is it safe? The fourth area of consideration is the safety of your home and neighborhood. Do you have a burglar alarm system that can be set? Are there neighbors living close by that you know and trust? Are you next door to a business that attracts unsavory characters? Be honest with yourself. Don’t overlook a bad situation because you feel leaving your children home alone is your only choice. If something bad happened to your children, you would realize that there were, indeed, other options.

Start with training. Once you have decided that the situation is right for your child to be home alone, begin with short periods of time. Make certain you or another trusted adult who is close by is available by phone. Gradually increase the amount of time as you and your child become comfortable with the arrangement.

Important note.
Check for laws in your area that govern unsupervised children. You don’t want to put your family in an unlawful position.

Okay, I went through your checklist and I think my children are ready to be home alone for short periods of time. I’m wondering how to make this a successful endeavor.

THINK ABOUT IT. Letting children stay home alone is a big step for everyone in your family. It gives your children a new level of responsibility and it gives the parent a new found, long-awaited, much deserved, eagerly anticipated, exuberant feeling of freedom. (Oh, did I get carried away there?) I know it sounds liberating, but don’t rush into this big change. Take your time to plan and prepare for success.

Start with rules. With your children’s help, create a list of rules that will apply when they’re home alone. Include specific ‘do’s’ such as homework, chores, etc., and ‘don’ts’ such as answer the door, use the stove or tie up younger siblings. Include a list of acceptable activities, specify the amount of TV they can watch and what foods they can eat. The more you think ahead and cover possible issues up front, the less likely you’ll have to deal with a problem later on.

Emergency training. Provide your children with emergency training. Many YMCAs, The Red Cross or schools offer classes for children who want to baby-sit. These are a good option, as they typically cover all standard emergency procedures. Have all your children take the training, not just the oldest one. Make certain there is a list of important telephone numbers near the phone in an easy-to-find location (not buried under a pile of old mail). Write the main emergency number on the telephone itself. (I’ve heard of adults who forget the sequence of 9-1-1 when faced with an emergency situation.) If your city does not have a 9-1-1 system that provides your address upon calling, make sure your address and driving directions to your home are also written on the emergency pad. Provide your children with the telephone number of an adult you know and trust who is close by, particularly if you’re quite a distance away from home.

Plan ahead. Discuss or role-play various situations that may come up. Ask, “What would you do if…” questions to be certain your children are prepared.

A few examples of those situations you would want to review would be:

1. What if you lose your house key?
2. What if someone comes to the door?
3. What if you’re hungry?
4. What if you need help on your homework?
5. What if dad’s not home exactly at 5 o’clock?
6. How will you answer the phone?
7. When would it be okay to call me at work?

Who’s in charge? If you have more than one child, decide in advance if one of them is ‘in charge’ or if they hold equal responsibility. Clearly identify the rules that will apply. Decide how arguments will be resolved in your absence.

Elizabeth is the author of The No-Cry Solution series of parenting books. (Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc. from Perfect Parenting, The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 1999.) For more information, visit


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