Parents eventually have to make the call, one pivoting largely around a child’s maturity level. When is a kid ready to be home alone for the first time?
Should it be around age 10, or closer to 12, when some kids begin babysitting?
Experts say the decision is highly subjective, and based on individual family situations, because it hinges on each kid’s skills and ability to safely handle being alone.
“It depends, because you may have a 10-year-old who is perfectly capable of being home alone and another 10-year-old who you wouldn’t consider doing that for a number of years more,” said Norah West, a spokeswoman with Washington state Department of Social and Health Services.
“It depends, based on the individual child’s needs and behaviors,” she said.
The DSHS agency offers general guidelines with points to consider before leaving children safely by themselves.
While a few states legislate at what age children can be left alone, neither Washington nor Idaho do. The DSHS guidelines suggest that parents begin with short periods of time and slowly lengthen those segments.
Amber Sherman is a Spokane-area recruitment coordinator for Fostering Washington, a nonprofit providing foster care recruitment and support. She suggests that parents assess the skills and maturity of their kids regarding how they would handle different situations.
Dialogue should occur and key questions of children asked, such as: Do they know how to contact emergency services? Can they calmly dial key phone numbers? Will they recall the home’s address if needed in an emergency?
“Is there someone nearby like a family member or neighbors they can reach out to?” Sherman said.
“You never know what might come up. Are their kids capable of handling situations – from true emergencies to someone’s knocking at the door? Are they allowed to open the door, and what do they tell people?”
Sherman also recommended that parents start with a brief trial period, and that most children under 11 aren’t ready to be left for an entire day. Parents might start with short spurts for a mature 9- or 10-year-old, perhaps for a quick 15-minute trip to a nearby store.
“Again give them rules, she said. “Do the doors need to be locked? Can they answer the door? That’s just starting with very small increments.”
That’s all assuming the household doesn’t have younger kids present as well, in which the one charged with babysitting should be much older, likely a teenager, who can handle the responsibility.
Better yet, Sherman said, is to have that teen be a graduate of a babysitter class like ones offered through YMCA of the Inland Northwest or Providence Health & Services.
“My daughter is now 13, and even with that babysitter course, she started helping out with child care at church,” Sherman said. “We’ve done things like that to help improve her skills.”
“The other thing is kitchen safety, and can they use the stove and microwave safely? That’s where distractions can happen while they’re watching TV, and they’ve left a burner on. That’s another discussion of the rules.”
“Thinking back to my daughter – who is mature and has a good handle on things – no, she wasn’t allowed to use the microwave or stove.”
Rather, she was encouraged to cook while Sherman was home to observe her daughter’s skills and awareness of safety.
Other questions and guidelines that might help parents or adult caretakers include:
Does your child feel frightened or apprehensive about staying home alone?
Does your child follow your instructions and rules, and tell the truth?
Can your child be counted on to stay clear-headed in an unexpected situation, and contact a parent or another responsible adult if needed?
Can your child calmly dial 911, give their full name?
How safe is your neighborhood?
Is the home free of hazards? Is there food that doesn’t require using a stove to minimize risk?
Does your child know how to lock or secure the doors? Does your child have a key or a plan if accidentally locked outside?
Does your child know what to do if a visitor comes to the door?
Other guidelines are offered by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a service of the Children’s Bureau under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families.
The U.S. bureau guidelines say there is no agreed-upon age when all children are able to stay home alone safely, because children mature at different rates. It cites that only a few states have laws regarding a minimum age for children left home alone, including Illinois law requiring them to be 14 years old; in Maryland, it’s 8; and Oregon, 10.
Other states simply offer guidelines.
“When deciding whether to leave a child home alone, you will want to consider your child’s physical, mental, developmental and emotional well-being,” the gateway publication says.
The report suggests considering if children are physically and mentally able to care for themselves.
“Role play,” it says. “Act out possible situations to help your child learn what to do such as how to manage visitors or answer phone calls,” without revealing that a parent isn’t home.
Set clear limits on use of cable television, computers and other electronic devices, and the internet. Some experts suggest making a list of chores or other tasks to keep children busy while you are gone.
Along with going over safety rules for the home, families should discuss an emergency plan and what constitutes an emergency. Parents can call a child while away to see how it’s going or have a trusted neighbor or friend check in.
Children also should be encouraged that they can call a trusted neighbor or relative if they can’t get a hold of a parent for any questions or concerns.
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