Leaving Kids Home Alone: What's a Safe Age?

My oldest child turned 11 this year. He’s tired of being dragged around to his siblings’ activities. So my husband and I started thinking about letting him stay home alone at times. It’s not an easy decision to make, so I decided to do a little research.

Points to Ponder

  • Most experts agree that children under the age of 10 should not be left alone. Kids that age just aren’t mature enough to handle the decisions and potential emergency situations.
  • Talk to your child. Is he or she comfortable being left alone? The first time I brought up the subject with my son, I was surprised to find that he didn’t want to stay home alone. Six months later, it’s a different story.
  • Is your child responsible? If they follow through dependably on chores and homework and they seem to use good judgment in making decisions and following rules, you will feel better about letting them stay alone. A risk-taker or absent-minded-professor type probably needs more time to mature.
  • Where do you live? Think about whether you are in a generally safe neighborhood and whether you have reliable neighbors that may be around in an emergency.

Preparation

  • With your child, run through potential safety and emergency scenarios, such as what to do if someone knocks on the door or if the child cuts himself.
  • Practice. Start out by leaving just for 15 to 30 minutes, going someplace nearby—to a neighbor’s or the grocery store—so that you can get back quickly if necessary.
  • Make sure your child knows how to use the phone to call 911.
  • Make certain your child knows how to call you, too. And, besides your cellphone number, leaving the number for a neighbor or friend is a good idea.
  • Review how to use the home security system, if you have one. My son still sets it off regularly when he lets the dog out, but he knows how to fix it before the police come!
  • Review with your child when to answer the phone. If you have Caller ID, tell your child not to answer for any number she doesn’t recognize. Otherwise, have your child listen to the voicemail messages and screen all calls.
  • Review when to answer the door. A good rule of thumb is to never answer for a stranger or for anyone you are not expecting.
  • Discuss the fire and smoke alarms and what to do if they go off.

Establish the Ground Rules

  • Discuss whether friends are allowed over or not. We’re still new at this so that’s a big “NO” in our house.
  • Discuss any parts of the house that are off-limits.
  • Talk about TV and Internet rules. If your children are allowed to get on the Internet when home alone, be sure they know never to reveal that status to anyone online.
  • Discuss food choices. Until they are older, avoiding sharp knives, cooktops, and ovens when you’re not there is wise. For now, we stick with foods that don’t need to be cooked or that can easily be microwaved.

Childproof a Few Things

  • Things to consider putting safely out of reach: alcohol, prescription medications, tobacco, and matches.
  • If you have guns, this is a great time to make sure that they are all locked up, unloaded, and securely stored—with the ammo stored in a separate safe spot.

Stay in Touch

  • Tell your child when you expect to be home.
  • Keep your phone available and where you can hear it if it rings.
  • Call and check in periodically—tell your child he can answer the phone if it’s you!

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