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Home alone: Is your child ready?
Evaluating your child, offering some coaching and setting a few ground rules all have important roles in making sure a child can be safely left at home.
Sooner or later it's a question you may find yourself asking: Is it OK to leave my child home alone?
Whether your kids will be on their own for just a few moments while you run to the store or for several hours each day after school, there are a number of factors to consider. When deciding, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is it legal? There may be laws—or recommendations—in your area concerning when you may leave children on their own. Check with the child protective services agency for your state. For contact information, click here.
2. Is the environment safe? Consider your neighborhood. Is it generally a place you'd feel comfortable leaving your child alone? Are there trustworthy neighbors who would help your child in an emergency?
Look carefully at your home as well. If there are potential hazards, such as firearms, alcohol or medications that your child could get into, make sure they are securely stored away.
3. Is my child mature enough? Age isn't necessarily a good indicator of a child's level of responsibility or judgment. So it's not possible to give a set age at which children can be left alone, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). What matters is your son's or daughter's ability to stay safe and handle situations that might occur when no one else is there.
That said, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that child experts generally agree that 11 or 12 is the age at which parents can consider allowing a child to be home alone—as long as it's during the day and for no more than around three hours.
4. Have I prepared my child? According to the AAP, your child should know:
- When and how to answer the phone. Children should never give out personal information or tell a stranger that their parents aren't home. Instead, teach them to say, "My parents aren’t able to come to the phone right now. May I take a message?"
- How to respond to a fire or medical crisis. It's important, for example, to teach kids how to respond to a cooking fire and to go over escape routes from your home. It's also good to show the child where first aid supplies are kept. Be sure to explain how to treat problems such as cuts and nosebleeds and whom to contact if they need help—including 911.
- How to handle household emergencies. That includes things like showing the child shutoff valves on toilets, sinks and your home's main water line and demonstrating how to switch on a tripped electrical circuit breaker.
- The name of his or her doctor, your preferred hospital and your insurance information.
A trial run
If you think your child is ready to be on his or her own, give it a trial run for a short time—perhaps an hour, advises the AACAP. If things go well, you can continue to leave the child alone, gradually extending how long you're gone.
Each time, be sure your child knows:
- Where you will be.
- When you'll be home.
- How to reach you or another responsible adult.
Try to check in with your child occasionally. And if you run late returning, let him or her know. Your kids may worry about you, just as you worry about them.
Set some ground rules
When your child will be alone, be sure to establish some rules and expectations. For example, it can be good to specify:
- That the door should remain locked at all times and that your child should never open it for strangers.
- Whether friends are allowed in the house, and if so, how many.
- If any activities, such as cooking, using the internet or watching certain television channels, are prohibited.
- If chores and/or homework should be done before you return.
Hopefully, your child won't spend a lot of time alone. But by making sure he or she is prepared, you can feel more at ease about the child's safety and well-being.