When can children be left at home alone?

Published 9:05 am Saturday, October 9, 2010

Maryanne Law, Families First

QUESTION: At what age is it acceptable to allow my child to stay home alone?

Maryanne Law

ANSWER: The decision about children being in charge of their own care is not a matter of age, but of maturity. Self-care should be the last option, regardless of a child’s maturity level. If you think that your child is ready to stay home for extended periods of time without adult supervision, make plenty of time to go over the following guidelines:

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Checking In — If alone for several hours, a child needs to be checking in periodically with a responsible adult, whether it’s calling a parent at work or a trusted person who will always be home.

Specific Responsibilities — Will your child be expected to handle some household chores, take care of pet, practice a music lesson or do school homework?

Free Time — Are friends allowed in the house? (Most parents say no.) Can your child play outside or go to other friends’ homes? Is it OK for your child to talk to friends on the phone? You must be aware that you will have no control over what is being watched on the TV or seen on the Internet.

Strangers — Teach proper procedures for answering the door and telephone. It’s usually best not to let a caller or visitor know that a child is home alone. When answering the phone, your child can say, “My mom can’t come to the phone right now; can I take a message or your number so she can call you back?”

Emergencies — Talk and plan for all kinds of “what if” situations. Be sure your child knows how to lock and unlock doors and windows, what to do if approached by a stranger on the way home, what to do if they think someone is in the house when they get home, a list of emergency numbers, what to do if they smell smoke or gas, what to do in severe storms, basic first aid skills and appropriate and inappropriate reasons for calling parents or other adults for help. It shouldn’t surprise us that while children seem to know what to do when quizzed about unforeseen events, they often don’t do as well as expected when panic hits.

Curiosity — Talk to your child about the deadly consequences of medicines, power tools, alcohol, cleaning products, sharp knives, matches and guns. Make sure you keep these things in a secure place, out of sight and locked up.

If you would like to talk with a parenting specialist about the challenges in child raising, call the toll-free Parent WarmLine at 1-888-584-2204/Línea de Apoyo at 877-434-9528. For free emergency child care call Crisis Nursery at 1-877-434-9599. Check out www.familiesandcommunities.org.

Maryanne Law is the executive director of the Parenting Resource Center in Austin.