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Leaving Your Child At Home Alone

Apr 18, 2008
An estimated 5 to 7 million American school-age children go home to an empty house after school and fend for themselves. Some people say that being alone promotes responsibility and independence; others argue that the lack of supervision fosters delinquent behavior and hampers emotional and social growth. It's impossible to make a general statement about when a child can be left home alone safely. Usually children are not mature enough to be considered for self-care until they are 11 or 12. Some states have made laws that specify an age below which it is illegal to leave children alone, while other states don't set a specific age but consider the maturity level of the child. Ask your child welfare agency about the regulations in your state. Before letting your child come home to an empty house, explore other options such as supervised after-school programs.

The decision to allow your child to stay alone is complicated and depends on his or her maturity level and the conditions under which he or she will be alone. Children do best if they are mentally and emotionally ready to stay alone, have learned the skills and knowledge necessary to deal with the responsibility, and can talk easily with their parents about their fears or concerns. Even if your child is ready, other factors, such as an unsafe neighborhood, may prevent you from letting him or her stay alone. Consider how your child handles responsibility, follows directions, and uses good judgment. Does he or she want to stay home alone? Is the amount of time your child will be alone reasonable? Is your child resourceful enough to find something constructive, safe, and helpful to do if he or she is bored? Is he or she self disciplined enough to do chores or homework without supervision?

Before leaving your child alone, carefully consider the potential problems and develop a plan with your child to address them. Make your home as safe as possible from obvious dangers. Check doors, windows, locks, and lighting; trim the bushes near doors and windows; and make a thorough home inspection to detect fire hazards. Make sure the batteries in your smoke alarms and that carbon monoxide detectors are in working order.

Rehearse the family emergency plan. Your child should be able to identify two escape routes from the house in case of fire and name two adults to contact in case of an emergency. He or she needs to be able to give his or her phone number, address, and directions to the house. Post your work number and the numbers of neighbors or nearby relatives or friends, 911 or your local emergency number, local police and fire department numbers, and the number of a poison control center near the telephone. Your child should know how to handle simple first aid for cuts and scrapes, burns, nosebleeds.

Generally, leaving your child home alone is a decision in which a parent should be extremely cautious to make. A child should be properly trained so that they may know how to handle different situations when an adult is not present.
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