Deciding to let your child stay home alone

How do you decide when your youngsters are ready to stay home alone? There is no test that will accurately determine a child's readiness for this responsibility. As a parent, you must carefully weigh all factors when considering your offspring's maturity. Although each child is unique and should be evaluated as such, the following questions will help  you determine your youngster's readiness.

  1. How old is your child? Child safety experts advise that children younger than 10 years old not be left home alone.
  2. Is the family whole heartedly in support of this decision? Is your child comfortable and willing to stay home alone?
  3. Are there any medical conditions such as epilepsy or asthma that could make staying home alone dangerous for your child? If such a condition exists, would you be able to work out an emergency plan for your child to get help or could the youngster deal with the condition without assistance?
  4. Is this a particularly stressful time for you and your child? Realizing that changes (like moving or divorce) or losses (like the death of a family member or pet) will include stress, it might be better to let your life get back to normal before your child begins self care.
  5. Are you or your spouse or partner easily reached by phone during the time your child will be alone?
  6. Is your home safe? Is your neighborhood safe?
  7. Are there trusted neighbors who are home during the time your child will be alone and are they willing to be called upon in case of need? It certainly helps if your child already has a good relationship with the neighbors. If you have just moved into a new apartment or neighborhood, make sure you and your child meet at least a few of your neighbors.
  8. Will your child need to prepare meals? It's best to have snacks available that don't require the use of a stove.
  9. Will your youngster be able to continue after school activities, such as sports, clubs, music or dancing lessons? Children enrolled in after school programs will have access to fun and creative activities.
  10. What care arrangements can you make if your child is ill and must stay home from school? You may also have to work out contingency plans for school holidays and vacations months in advance.
  11. Does your child convey his/her feelings and concerns to you? Will your child tell you if there are problems at home when you are gone? The risk of sexual assault or exploitation is much greater when children are left alone together. These factors aggravate the normal day-to-day disagreements and make it more important that such situations be closely monitored.
  12. Does your child have an abnormal amount of fear? Children home alone are naturally more fearful than those supervised by an adult, but the way a child deals with such fear, positively or negatively, has a long-term effect on personality development.
  13. Is your child an only child or will he/she be home with one or more siblings? Do your children usually get along with one another when you are at home? If you have more than one child, will one be in charge or will each be independent agents answerable only to parents and not to one another?
  14. Is your child in a family that has merged through remarriage? Stepchildren do not share a common bond or history and may deal with territorialism, competition and power struggles.
  15. Does your youngster purposely defy your authority very often? Does he/she exhibit behavior that is considered abnormal? Has your child ever been involved in drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, sexual activity, setting fires or any other behavior of extreme concern? Psychologists say children who have already exhibited these tendencies are almost certain to get into trouble when home alone.

    Such children are better off with adult supervision or in a structured day care center. If this is impossible and you must leave a child like this alone, he/she should be monitored more often. If you cannot physically check on your child's behavior, make sure you can phone him/her frequently.

  16. Can you trust your child to have complete and unchaperoned access to all areas of your home while you are away?
  17. Last, but most important, will your child be trained to handle the emergencies as well as the everyday problems that arise when he/she is alone? Special safety instructions must be given to youngsters who take care of themselves at home alone. In some states it is even against the law to leave children younger than [10 years] unsupervised. Heeding safety tips can help prevent disaster for children who spend time home alone.

First of all, if your child carries a house key, caution him to be careful with it. If the key is typically worn on a chain  around your child's neck, remind him/her to keep it under his/her shirt, out of sight. A plainly visible key tells any observer that the child is going to be home alone, without adult supervision or protection.

Never hide a key under the doormat, near or above the door, in or under a flowerpot, or in the mailbox. Those are the first places burglars check and all too often that's exactly where they find the key! It's also a good idea to change the hiding place from time to time…The very best place to leave a key is with a trusted neighbor or apartment manager who is usually home. If you must hide a key at home, put it in a waterproof container and bury it away from the door, or hide it in dense shrubbery or even in a neighbor's yard. Many stores sell "key rocks" made of a synthetic material with a hollowed out place under the rock for the house key. When placed among a group of real rocks, away from the door, it's almost impossible for someone else to spot which rock holds the house key. If your child gets locked out and there is no spare key available, he/she should go to a neighbor's or friend's home and phone you at work for  instructions. Give your youngster a long list of people who could help in situations like this, in case their first choice is not at home. It's not a good idea for the child to leave you a note on the door.

It's the parent's responsibility to make the home or apartment as safe as possible for their children home alone. Parents must realize that intruders can also enter the home through unlocked doors and windows. Advise your children to look over the house or apartment before they go in. If something looks suspicious: for example, the door is standing open or looks like it has been forced, a window is broken, a ladder is leaning up against an upper window, a strange van is in the driveway, or the house looks "suspicious," the child should NOT go in. He/she should leave quickly, go to a neighbor's and immediately dial 911. Most police departments want youngsters to phone them immediately so they have a better chance of apprehending the intruder. Make sure your children clearly understand they are NOT to go in the house if it looks suspicious, are NOT to sneak around and try to find out what's going on, or play the hero. A child confronting a burglar could end in tragedy.

Remind your children home alone to lock the door behind them when they come home and keep it locked. Also teach them to lock the door and take the keys with them if they go to a neighbor's or just out to play with friends. Caution them not to leave their key dangling in the lock, even if they are in a hurry to get the door open when they come home from school.Children who spend time home alone should be taught NOT to answer someone knocking at the door or ringing the doorbell, no matter how insistent. When children respond by asking who is there, looking out a window or peephole, they easily reveal they are alone without adult supervision. Even worse, they may be tempted to open the door to a stranger. It is difficult for children to balance their desire to be polite with concern for their own safety.  Someone bent on harm knows this and can easily talk a child into opening the door. Even if a youngster can be seen through a window, he/she should still not respond but should simply ignore a bell or knock. Parents must tell their children in advance what they should do if they think someone is trying to break into the house or apartment.  Generally, the safest action children can take is to get out by another door or window, go to a neighbor's and phone the police. If that isn't possible, the child should quickly go to a room that locks and has a telephone (perhaps a parent's  bedroom) and phone the police. As a very last resort, a child could hide in a locked bathroom, under a bed, or in a closet, and remain quiet until the intruder leaves. Under no circumstances should a youngster try to use a weapon (gun, knife, baseball bat, karate etc.) against an intruder, since it is usually the child who ends up hurt.

Leave lights on in bedrooms, bathrooms or the kitchen, and leave a radio playing when you're away. If your children spend much time alone at home, you might want to buy the family a dog and invest in a good home security alarm system. Fewer burglaries take place at homes with barking dogs or burglar alarms.

Children home alone should also have guidelines for handling phone calls. First of all, the best way for anyone, and especially children, to answer the phone is to simply say, "Hello." It is not a good idea to identify the family or say first  names, since you don't want to be on a first-name basis with a stranger, even on the phone. Children who have not been taught what to do may say Mom and Dad are at work and won't be home until such and such a time or may say the parent is "busy" or "unavailable," which does not sound convincing. Here's what to do: When the phone rings, and the caller asks for the parents, the child should say, "Just a minute please," put the phone down, take few steps and holler, "Mom (or Dad), it's for you!" just as loudly as he/she would do if you were actually home. Next the child should slowly count to fifteen, then go back and pick up the phone and tell the caller, "Mom (or Dad) can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message and have him/her call you back?" The situation could become more difficult if the caller asks the child to relay a message to the parent he believes is nearby. In this case, the child could repeat the procedure and again tell the caller he/she will just have to take a message and have the parent return the call.

Tell your children not to give callers any information about the family. They should not give out names, ages, etc., or give the caller their home address. Also teach them not to give out their phone number if someone says he/she has reached a wrong number and asks for the number they reached. It's also wise to caution youngsters against participating in phone surveys or answering other types of questions. If children are flustered and don't know what to do, they can always simply hang up.

Since obscene calls are all too common, it's a good idea for children to know what to do in advance. Reassure them that although these calls are frightening, they are rarely dangerous. If children receive an obscene call, they should not listen or talk, but should quietly hang up at the first indication the call is not "ok." If there are more calls when the child is home alone, and the youngster is upset, he could call a nearby neighbor to come over. Children could also unplug the phone or leave it off the hook, but should phone parents first to let them know, in case they become alarmed when they are unable to reach the child by phone. If obscene calls persist, contact your local police department.

Trudy K. Dana is an expert in child safety education, and is frequently asked to speak about child safety to parents, as well as on television and radio news programs and talk shows in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. In addition, Dana presents safety sessions for elementary school children in individual classroom settings. For more information about Trudy Dana's books and presentations, contact: OPERATION LOOKOUT® by phone: (425) 771-7335.