When Can My Child Stay Home Alone?


child-alone-_-credit-neededThe children are back in school now, and Johnny comes home and asks, “Why can’t I come home after school like Bobby does, instead of going to the babysitter?” Regardless of the answer you give, his response will likely be “That’s not fair,” but it is up to you—the adult—to make this all-important decision for your child.

There is no magic age where all children are considered old enough to stay home by themselves. There may be a law in your state which delineates a chronological age for this, but in reality, you cannot use this as the only guideline. All children are so different! Children develop and mature differently. Their past experiences may have influenced how they react to situations and people. Their personalities have been shaped differently by their unique life events and experiences. Physically or mentally, they may not be able to perform tasks required of a child staying home by themselves. Emotionally, they may be fearful or anxious about being alone. If they cannot handle loneliness or boredom, they are not ready. If they have come from another country, they may not be familiar with our laws, expectations, the community, or safety precautions. If they have behavioral challenges, they may not be able to handle conflict or accept responsibility. If they have been exposed to negative influences, they may be tempted to revert to these types of behaviors if unsupervised. They may not have been trained in “stranger danger” awareness. Siblings alone together in the home may also pose a barrier if they cannot get along well without adult supervision. Can you truly trust your child? For many reasons, chronological age cannot be the factor on which you base your decision to let your child stay home alone.

As the adult, you have to know your child well and know what he or she is capable of. You have to know your community and your neighbors and know that he or she will have a responsible adult near if staying alone is an option. You have to weigh the statistics about childhood injuries and juvenile and violent crime during the after-school hours in your area to see if this is too great a risk to take with your child. You have to gauge the maturity level of your child. Most importantly, you BOTH have to feel comfortable and confident in making the decision to leave the child alone.

If staying home alone is an option for your child, both spouses must be in agreement and be willing and available to head home if an emergency arises. You will want to first discuss safety issues with your child to see if his or her knowledge about these crucial topics is solid. Make a list of questions about home safety: “What would you do if…?” scenarios, house rules, and “Who should you call if…?” emergency contacts, and discuss these thoroughly with your child. Be sure you have a neighbor whom your child can contact and/or go to their home if needed during a crisis. Identify where the spare key is kept in case your child’s key is lost. Make a list of emergency contacts and post it visibly by every phone. Teach your child about safety precautions for home electronics, food preparation equipment, telephone calls, knocks at the door, fire escape routes, first aid, unusual smells in the home (i.e. gas leaks), and any concerns about the condition of the home he may notice upon his arrival home from school (open door, broken window, etc.) Discuss your expectations for friends visiting during this alone time. Practice how to answer the phone. Watch him prepare snacks to assure you are comfortable with his ability to do this safely. Must he remain inside or is he allowed to play outside? Make a contract with him which clearly outlines what is and is not permitted; you must be clear about your expectations. Assure you have secured any firearms, alcohol, medications, or household poisons which could present a risk to your child. You should also plan to test his ability to stay alone for short periods of time first to assess both his ability and your comfort level with doing so on an extended basis. Discuss how you both felt during that time. What worked and what did not? Do you need to make changes to the expectations or routine?

Being home alone after school is not in every child’s best interests for many reasons. For some, it is an acceptable alternative to after-school care. It is important to take the time to truly assess your child’s capability, willingness, maturity level, ability to be responsible, and comfort level with being alone at home before making that all-important decision. Being home alone is a privilege, not a right. Whatever your decision, be sure it is in the best interests of your child.

Photo Credit: Russ

Karlene Edgemon works as MLJ Adoptions’ Director of Social Services. Throughout her 25 year social services career, Karlene has been able to watch adoption transform the lives of children and she is always brainstorming new ways to support adoptive families before, during and after their adoption.