We are in the midst of the busiest time of year with Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza, and the New Year quickly approaching. While the holidays are festive and a time to celebrate, parents are being pulled in a million different directions. In addition to a regular work schedule, there are work and family get-togethers to attend; kids have parties and recitals at their schools; and there are what seem to be endless shopping trips for presents.
As a result of these activities, many parents are faced with the decision of when to leave a child home alone. The holidays throw a wrench into many families’ schedules, and parents often find themselves questioning whether they can leave their child at home by themselves in order to make a quick trip to the store to pick up a last-minute gift.
Many people look to the law for help in making this decision, but there is no “legal age” when a child can, or should, be left alone because it varies from child to child. The key factor is your child’s ability to keep themselves safe when alone. A child should not be left home alone until they are ready emotionally and have the maturity/capacity to keep themselves safe.
Here are some things to consider when making this important decision:
- Age and maturity. How has your child shown responsibility in the past? Is your child able to care for themselves? Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
- Your child’s feelings. How comfortable is your child being alone? Is your child afraid?
- Time. How long will your child be alone? Will it be during the day or evening? During a meal time or bed time?
- Other children. How many children will be in the home without an adult? How do the children get along and is the older child able to care for younger ones?
- Safety. How safe is your neighborhood? Do you have a safety plan for emergencies? Does your child know their address, phone number and how to call 911 if needed? Can your child contact you at all times if needed? Who else is available to help in an emergency (a neighbor, for example)?
If you have decided that your child is ready to stay home alone, here are some suggestions:
- Have a trial period. Leave your child alone for a short time while you are nearby, and see how they manage. Despite it being the busy holiday season, if your child has never been left alone before, it might not be the ideal time to try it for the first time while you run a quick errand or two. You know your child and family best, so you need to determine what will work best.
- Role play. Act out possible situations to help your child learn what to do. A good example would be acting out a scenario where someone comes to the door or calls when your child is left alone. If you act out the scenario ahead of time about what your child should do in particular situations, they will be better prepared to deal with unplanned events.
- Establish rules. Make sure your child knows what is (and what is not) allowed when you are not home. Many parents find that having a chore list to keep kids busy is a good strategy.
- Check in. Call your child while you are gone, or have a friend stop by to check on your child.
- Talk about your child’s feelings. Encourage your child to share their feelings about staying home alone and address any concerns.
- Don’t overdo it. Even a mature, responsible child should not be alone too long or too often. Consider community centers or church activities to help keep your child busy and supervised when you are away from home.
- Have emergency phone numbers easily accessible. Show your child where the phone numbers are (phone numbers like the local police and fire departments are good to have on hand).
Haven Evans is the Director of Training at the Pa Family Support Alliance.