How old does a child need to be in order to be left at home alone? How about with siblings? Once you make that call, how do you ensure that they are safe and that their experience isn’t a negative one?
Most states have no minimum age laws (Illinois, Maryland and Oregon are the exceptions with minimum ages set at 14, 8 and 10 respectively) preferring instead to let the parents decide for themselves when their child is mature enough. Children are all different and have different needs and while one child may be ready to be left alone at 10, another might not be ready until much later. Generally it’s probably best not to let a child under the age of 10 be alone except for very brief periods and certainly infants and toddlers should never be left alone, even for a few minutes.
Be that as it may, here are some tips to help in giving your child this type of independence:
– When you believe that your child is old enough, start by leaving them alone for a short period of time. As they show that they can handle it and don’t show unusual behavior (acting more nervous or fearful, suddenly having nightmares or other behavior changes that might signal fear that they might not be vocalizing) you can start extending the time.
– Make sure that your child knows how to calmly dial 911 and knows what to say.
– Make sure that the child knows his or her full name as well as the address of the house where they are.
– Make sure that they have your phone number memorized as well (It isn’t enough to have it set up in their cell phone. Cell phones can break and die and they need to know how to get a hold of you if this should happen.
– Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal clues about how the child feels about being alone in the house. Don’t force the child until he or she is ready.
– Make sure that the child knows how to work the security system if you have one installed; make sure they also know what to do if the alarm goes off.
– Walk through several scenarios with them such as what to do if there is someone at the front door, what to do if they see or hear someone walking around outside, what to say if someone calls, what to do in the event of a storm, tornado or other inclement weather, what to do if the power goes out (make sure you leave flashlights and let the child know where they are in case of power outage), etc…
– Set a time (or times, if the stay is longer) when the child needs to check in with you (This is a great test to see if they can follow orders and take responsibility).
– Let them know that this is a privilege but also a responsibility and because of that there are certain rules that if broken will result in them no being allow to be alone in the house again until they show that they are mature enough to abide by the rules (e. g. no friends get to come over, rules about how much TV or computer times they are allowed and what they are allowed to view, rules and restrictions about cooking, etc…)
– Finally make sure that the environment you are leaving them in is a safe one. Lock up all guns and firearms. Make sure that drugs and alcohol is locked up as well. Make sure that matches and lighters are put away too.
Being a good parent is all about leading a child from dependency on you, as the parent to independence and leaving them alone at home, in a safe environment is certainly one of the steps in this process. A little preparation, dialogue and instruction can make this transition easier and more worry free.