Home Alone — When Can You Let Your Child Have the Run of the House?
More than 5 million children go home to an empty house and check in by phone with Mom, Dad or another caregiver. If your child is home alone after summer activities or after school, it’s important that she has clear rules and contingency plans in place so that her safety is never compromised.
Is your child ready?
It goes without saying that young children should never be left home alone. As a rule, you shouldn’t leave kids younger than 10 years of age home alone at all for extended periods of time. A few-minute run to the store for milk is one thing. A two-hour wait every day after school requires a child with confidence, self-discipline, a willingness to follow rules without supervision and an ability to figure out what to do in a potentially dangerous situation. If your child isn’t ready for this responsibility, find an after-school program or a friend’s or relative's house.
If your child is 10 years or older, look for these clues that she is ready to handle the house by herself:
- Shows responsibility with homework, following instructions and schoolwork
- Can handle unexpected situations with a manner of relative calm
- Understands and follows rules
- Is smart about staying away from strangers and following basic safety guidelines
- Exercises good judgement and does not take unnecessary risks
If you’ve determined your child is ready, you need to equip him with the knowledge and training he needs to be safe:
- Try a practice run. Do some trial runs before the main event. Give your child the house for an hour or so, and stay nearby and easily reachable. When you get back, discuss his time alone and see if there are any adjustments you need to make.
- Keep things secure. If you have a security system, make sure she knows how it works — and that she never uses the code around friends. Make sure she locks the door behind her as soon as she gets home.
- Teach fire safety. Make sure your child knows where the fire extinguishers are and how to use one; remind him to leave the house if a fire is out of control.
- Consider first aid training. This is especially important if an older child is responsible for a younger sibling. The American Red Cross holds courses on first aid often. Contact your local branch and sign your child up for a basic first aid class.
- Ask “What if?” Give your child a few “what if” scenarios and see how she answers. Questions such as, “What would you do if a stranger knocked on the door?” or “What if you smell smoke?” or “What do you do when someone calls when I am not home?” can help ease your anxieties and prepare your child for the time alone.
- Be safe in the kitchen. Make sure your child knows how to use the microwave or toaster oven so he can prepare a healthy snack. Conversely, have rules about what appliances are off-limits, such as the stove.
- Build phone skills. Rehearse with your child how to answer the phone without letting on that she’s alone.
- Learn to spot home breaches and get help. Teach him never to enter the house if the door is open or a window is broken; instead, he should go to a neighbor's house and call 911.
- When in doubt, lock them out. Tell her to check the door before answering it; if she’s uncertain of the person’s identity, she shouldn’t open it.
- Keep phone numbers handy. Post a list of emergency numbers near the phone; this list should include your work and cell numbers, grandparents, trusted neighbors, and so on.
Reviewed by: Patrick S. Pasquariello Jr., MD
Date: August 2012