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Is Your Child ‘Home Alone Ready’ This Summer Season?

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Knowing when your child is ready to be left at home for extended periods of time is a tough call.  With summer break here, a growing number of working parents will leave their older children home alone during the next two months.  There are many reasons for this increase in “home alone”; the economy, the cost of child care and day camp and the need for both parents to work are just a few.  Of course, most parents would prefer to stay home or make use of alternate care options, but leaving children at home to take care of themselves is a cost-saving solution that many parents feel compelled to consider.

So, the important safety question is:  Is your child ready to be home alone this summer? The first thing you must do is check the laws in your state.  If there are no laws specifying a minimum age for leaving a child home alone, there may still be helpful guidelines.  For more information, contact your local Child Protective Services (CPS) agency.

A parent must look at the child’s age in relationship to growth, behavior and judgment – in other words, maturity.  Every child is different; there are no hard-and-fast rules for determining when a child is ready for the responsibility of being home alone.

Experts say that children should be left unaccompanied only if they have reached a level of maturity that allows them to handle difficult situations calmly.  Most experts will advise against leaving a child under the age of 10 alone.  Many older kids like to feel independent.  They often want to stay home alone, but parents should evaluate each child’s maturity as honestly and objectively as possible.  Parents:  You know your kids; regardless of their age, are they ready?   The following questions may help you decide:

  • Has he/she demonstrated responsible behavior in the past?  How often and in what situations?
  • Is your child physically and mentally able to care for himself/herself?
  • Does your child obey rules and make sound decisions when you are home?
  • Have you discussed the issue with your child?  Does he/she feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?
  • Have you experimented with short “home alone” periods?

If you are satisfied that the child qualifies with regard to age and maturity, you must now help the child master certain specific safety skills, particularly what to do and who to contact in an emergency situation.  Here is an additional list of important safety tip considerations:

  • Set rules for your child to follow when he/she is home alone.
  • Make sure your child knows how to contact you at all times.  Pre-select an alternative contact person, a neighbor or close relative.  Discuss with that person that he/she is the alternate contact person and what you expect or need from this person when your child calls.  Leave this person’s contact information with you child in case he/she needs assistance and is not able to reach you.
  • Remove fire hazards and install smoke detectors. Practice fire drills with your child so he/she knows what to do and where to go in case of fire.
  • Teach children basic first aid and have a first aid kit available.
  • Have children practice emergency (911) calls with you, giving their full address and directions if necessary.
  • Teach children when and if to answer the door and phone. Warn children to never let strangers into the house.
  • Keep all doors and windows locked.
  • Instruct children to never tell callers that they are alone. They should say that the parent is busy and offer to take a message. If a call seems suspicious, they should call you or another adult.
  • Set rules on eating and drinking and what types of meals your child is allowed to prepare and eat.
  • Have a clear understanding about the use of the oven, stovetop, and other appliances.  It is safest to make cooking equipment off-limits with the possible exception of the microwave (after providing specific use instructions).

Take time to carefully discuss all safety concerns with your kids.  Resist making quick decisions. Each child is unique; what works for one may not necessarily work for another.

Once your decision has been made to leave your kid(s) home alone, continually evaluate your arrangements and be flexible. Consider new ideas and make changes as necessary.  A great way to help ensure that safety tips stick is to play “What if?”  Imagine various situations and ask your child how he/she would respond.  “What if a delivery man comes to the door?”  What if the electricity goes out?”  What if you get hurt?”

If your career is important to you and/or your family needs your income, you may have little choice but to leave your child home alone.  Discussions like this will help your child feel more comfortable and will reassure you that your child is capable of being left home alone.  Have a safe rest of the summer!