Summer is approaching and, while many youngsters are excited and actually looking forward to attending camps, many children are pleading their case for staying home alone.
But exactly how old is old enough?
Surprisingly, only three states have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving a child home alone. Basically, the parent decides if their child is mature enough to be unsupervised at home.
Many parenting experts agree that it is not a good idea to leave a child under the age of 9 home alone, but how do you know if your child is ready for this responsibility?
For starters, as the parent you should assess whether your child:
- Is physically and mentally capable of caring for him/herself.
- Obeys the rules and makes good decisions.
- Responds well to unfamiliar or stressful situations.
- Feels comfortable or fearful about being home alone.
When it comes to safety:
- Does your family have an emergency plan and does your child know how to follow the plan?
- Does your child know his/her full name, address and phone number?
- Does your child know where you are and how to contact you at all times?
- Does your child know the full names and contact information of other trusted adults in case of an emergency?
After answering these questions, if you feel confident that your child is ready, here are some tips to help him/her feel comfortable and confident about being home alone:
- Have a trial period. Leave your child home alone for short periods of time to see how they manage by themselves.
- Role-play potential scenarios. Act out possible situations, such as how to manage unexpected visitors or deliveries and how to talk on the phone without revealing that a parent is not home.
- Establish rules. Make sure your child understands what is permissible and what is not. Be clear about expectations concerning technology, having friends over, going other places, how late they are allowed to sleep, chores that need to be done and exactly what is allowed while you are away. For example, should they bake cookies in the oven when you are away?
- Discuss emergencies. What constitutes an emergency in your eyes and in your child's eyes? Would they know that an overflowing toilet is definitely an emergency? Have you established a code word to use for emergencies?
- Check in. Have established check-in times in addition to random times that you call to make sure all is going well.
- Talk about it. Talk with your child about staying home alone and encourage him/her to share their feelings.
Staying home alone is a big deal. Even if you stayed home alone as a child, it is a new day and age. If your child isn't mature and isn't confident enough to handle this type of responsibility right now, look for inexpensive alternatives such as volunteering, community center programs, faith-based organization opportunities or perhaps even a neighbor or fellow parent who would be willing to help out.
Remember, although your child may seem smart, 9 is just 9, and 12 is not considered a young adult. The executive function of the brain, which is responsible for decision-making and self-control, doesn't completely develop until the mid-20s.
While leaving your child home alone may seem like the logical and most cost-effective thing to do, preparing your child for this kind of responsibility takes time. It isn't too soon to begin the preparation process.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.