Whether it's a snow day home from school, an unexpected business meeting, or a childcare arrangement that fell through, there probably will be times when you'll need to leave your child home alone.
It's natural for parents to worry when first leaving kids without supervision. But you can feel prepared and confident with some planning and a couple of trial runs. And handled well, staying home alone can be a positive experience for kids too, giving them a sense of self-confidence and independence.
Things to Consider
It's obvious that a 5-year-old can't go it alone, but that most 16-year-olds can. But what about those school-aged kids in the middle? It can be hard to know when kids are ready to handle being home alone. It comes down to your judgment about what your child is ready for.
You'll want to know how your child feels about the idea, of course. But kids often insist that they'll be fine long before parents feel comfortable with it. And then there are older kids who seem afraid even when you're pretty confident that they'd be just fine. So how do you know?
In general, it's not a good idea to leave kids younger than 10 years old home alone. Every child is different, but at that age, most kids don't have the maturity and skills to respond to an emergency if they're alone.
Think about the area where you live. Are there neighbors nearby you know and trust to help your child in case of an emergency? Or are they mostly strangers? Do you live on a busy street with lots of traffic? Or is it a quiet area? Is there a lot of crime in or near your neighborhood?
It's also important to consider how your child handles various situations. Here are a few questions to think about:
Does your child show signs of responsibility with things like homework, household chores, and following directions?
How does your child handle unexpected situations? Does your child stay calm when things don't go as planned?
Does your child understand and follow rules?
Can your child understand and follow safety measures?
Does your child use good judgment?
Does your child know basic first-aid?
Does your child follow your instructions about staying away from strangers?
Make a "Practice Run"
Even if you're confident about your child's maturity, it's wise to make some practice runs, or home-alone trials, before the big day. Let your child stay home alone for 30 minutes to an hour while you remain nearby and easily reachable.
When you return, discuss how it went and talk about things that you might want to change or skills that your child might need to learn for the next time.
Handling the Unexpected
You can feel more confident about your absence if your child learns some basic skills that might come in handy during an emergency. Organizations such as the American Red Cross offer courses in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in local places like schools, hospitals, and community centers.
Before being left home alone home alone, your child should know:
when and how to call 911 and what address information to give the dispatcher
how to work the home security system, if you have one, and what to do if the alarm is accidentally set off
how to lock and unlock doors
how to work the phone/cellphone (in some areas, you have to dial 1 or the area code to dial out)
how to turn lights off and on
how to operate the microwave
what to do if:
there's a small fire in the kitchen
the smoke alarm goes off
there's a tornado or other severe weather
a stranger comes to the door
someone calls for a parent who isn't home
there's a power outage
Regularly discuss some emergency scenarios — ask what your child would do if, for example, he or she smelled smoke, a stranger knocked at the door, or someone called for you while you're gone.
Before You Leave
When you decide that your child is ready to stay home alone, these practical steps can make it easier for you both:
Schedule time to get in touch. Set up a schedule for calling. You might have your child call right away after school, or set up a time when you'll call home to check in. Make sure your child understands when you're available and when you might not be able to answer a call. Create a list of friends your child can call or things your child can do if lonely.
Set ground rules. Set special rules for when you're away and make sure that your child knows and understands them. Consider rules about:
having a friend or friends over while you're not there
rooms of the house that are off limits, especially with friends
TV time and types of shows
Internet and computer rules
kitchen and cooking (you might want to make the oven and utensils like sharp knives off limits)
not opening the door for strangers
answering the phone
getting along with siblings
not telling anyone he or she is alone
Stock up. Make sure your house has everyday goods and emergency supplies. Stock the kitchen with healthy foods for snacking. Leave a precise dose of any medicine that your child needs to take, but don't leave medicine bottles out — it could lead to an accidental overdose or ingestion, especially by younger siblings.
Leave flashlights handy in case of a power outage. Post important phone numbers — yours and those of friends, family members, the doctor, police, and fire department — that your child might need in an emergency.
Childproof your home. No matter how well your child follows rules, secure anything that could be a health or safety risk. Lock them up and put them in a place where kids can't get to them, such as:
over-the-counter medicines that could cause problems if taken in excess, like sleeping pills, cough medicine, etc.
guns (if you keep one, make sure it is locked up and leave it unloaded and stored away from ammunition)
lighters and matches
Don't forget that pets can be great company for kids who are home alone. Many kids feel safer with a pet around — even a small one, like a hamster, can make them feel like they have a companion.
So cover your bases and relax. With the right preparation and some practice, you and your child will get comfortable with home-alone days in no time!