Old Enough to Be Home Alone?
Nine-year-old Annabelle Loudon of New Jersey pleaded to stay home alone. "Annabelle was tired of having to come on trips to the grocery store when her big sister wasn't home to baby-sit," says her mother, Margaret Loudon. "She's always been mature for her age and she knows she can call on her grandmother or neighbors if there's a problem." Loudon decided to leave her daughter home while she quickly ran to the store. Returning home, Loudon found a content preteenager with no problems.
Jody Johnston Pawel, licensed social worker and certified family life educator, has several tips for deciding if your preteen is ready to stay home unsupervised. She cautions against making the mistake of relying solely on age. Many 10-year-olds are ready for staying home alone; some 11-year-olds aren't mature enough, and some 9-year-olds are. Pawel recommends combining age with other criteria to determine if your own child is ready to be left home alone.
Make sure your preteen:
- Has been taught how to handle emergencies.
- Shows reasonable behavior when choosing independent activities.
- Is not habitually forgetful or oblivious to surroundings.
- Is self-sufficient (can prepare small meals and snacks).
If you're unsure how your child will behave when alone, leave him for short periods of time and see how he does. April Lee Schmidt of Alabama says, "I started leaving my 10-year-old daughter for five to 10 minutes to start with and gradually worked up to an hour or two." Pawel left her son alone – at first for only 15 to 20 minutes – when he was 10. But she didn't leave him home alone with his sister until he was 13 and had attended a Red Cross first aid and CPR class. At 11 1/2 her daughter is just starting to stay home alone.
Before leaving home, don't forget to discuss rules with your child. "I lock the door on my way out," says Elizabeth Hale of Quebec, mother of three boys. "They aren't allowed to answer the phone or the door. I don't want anyone to know they're home alone." Schmidt doesn't allow friends to visit unless it's prearranged, and her daughter can't go anywhere, even outside, unless given prior permission. "I tell her it's OK to tell a fib, like I'm in the shower or have my hands full with the baby," she says.
Pawel offers several suggestions for rules, such as requiring that your preteenager know how to fix low-danger meals. "Show them how to prepare meals without a stove to prevent fires," she says.
Powel also recommends no visitors, because experimenting with peers is tempting, and parents may be held liable for things that happen in their homes. "Don't forget to discuss obvious things like no smoking, drinking, girlfriends or boyfriends," she says.
Preteenagers should probably stay inside the house, but kids older than 13 may be allowed to go places as long as they let parents know where they'll be. If a home has caller ID, parents might allow children to answer calls from familiar callers, and Pawel suggests developing a signal, such as two rings, to notify kids that a parent is calling. Also, discuss how to identify a stranger and what to do if a stranger comes to the door.
Keeping Kids Safe
An emergency probably won't happen while you're not home, but what if a crisis does occur? Whether faced with a fire, a flood or a cut forehead, your child needs to know what to do and which calls to make. Here are some tips:
- Teach your child basic first aid.
- Leave emergency contact numbers by the telephone. Be sure to include 911 (discuss when it would be appropriate to call), cell phone numbers for you and your spouse, poison control, a close neighbor and a nearby friend or relative. It's also a good idea to leave the number for an out-of-state relative or friend since local lines can be tied up due to a nearby emergency.
- Create an emergency evacuation plan. Discuss two escape routes for each room. Talk about disasters that could happen in your area, such as wildfires, earthquakes, floods or severe snowstorms. Practice your evacuation plan. Tell your child to turn on the radio for instructions if a disaster occurs.
- Teach fire safety. Decide upon two sites to meet in case of fire or another disaster. One meeting place should be near your home. The other should be outside of the neighborhood, in case the neighborhood is inaccessible.