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Leaving Your Child Home Alone

By Lisa Pecos

In the early years of a child’s life, parents are forced to do whatever they have to do to make sure the child is supervised at all times. But once the child reaches a certain age, the issue starts to become fuzzier. Most well-behaved kids reach a point-generally in their preteens or thereabouts-where they are responsible and self-guided enough to look after themselves for a few hours. Yet considering whether to leave a child home alone raises all sorts of issues, and many parents are reluctant to face up to these issues until a little later. In the end, it is up to each family to decide on their own, but in any case there are some important factors to keep in mind.

Important considerations
Most parenting experts agree that the 10-year-old age mark is when the issue of leaving a child home alone should first arise. Before that, even well-behaved children simply do not have the experience or maturity they need to take care of themselves. After that, kids begin to get a sense of what it is like to have adult responsibilities, and some are even eager to show that they can handle it.

Many parents find that kids who are used to being left with a babysitter do well when it comes time to leave them home alone. They are used to their parents being away sometimes, and they are familiar with the routines and responsibilities that must be tended to when the parents are out. Still, making the jump from babysitting to being home alone is not as easy as it might seem, and some kids are not prepared to handle the pressure.

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Do you have any neighbors or nearby friends who can help your child in the event of an emergency?
  • Is your child good at handling responsibilities in other areas? For example, does she always keep up with her homework and chores, without complaint?
  • Does your child remain calm in difficult situations, or is she prone to react poorly when faced with unexpected things?
  • Is your child a natural rule-follower?
  • Does he or she have a strong grasp of how to stay safe around the home?
  • Does your child know and follow the rules about keeping away from strangers?

If you answer yes to all of these questions, there is a good chance your child can be left alone for at least a short time. However, this decision must also rely on gut feeling. You know your child better than everyone, and if something inside you tells you he or she is not ready to be left alone, you are probably right.

Also, do not forget to check the local regulations about when it is permitted for parents to leave their kids at home. Different states and municipalities have different rules on the books, and you do not want to inadvertently run afoul of the law.

Making the leap
When you think your child is ready to be left alone, it is time to do some trial runs-short outings of 30 to 60 minutes. Prepare your child well in advance by telling him or her what is going to happen, what you expect, and when you will be back. Also make it very clear that you expect him or her to follow all your instructions. Express that if your instructions are not followed, there will not be a second chance for quite some time. Most kids are excited about the chance to take care of themselves sometimes, so this should provide good incentive.

Make sure your child knows all about the basics of safety and security. Familiarize him or her with 911 and other emergency numbers, emphasize the importance of locking doors, and make it absolutely clear which household appliances are off-limits while you are not around. Finally, give the child the number of at least one person he or she should call if you are unreachable. If it can be a neighbor or someone else who lives nearby, that is best.

Once you have all of this out of the way and have done a couple of trial runs, there is nothing you can do but take the plunge. Fortunately, the ubiquity of cellphones makes it easy for today’s parents to stay in touch with their kids when separated. The first few times you leave your child alone, feel free to check in as frequently as you need to in order to feel secure. Once your child shows that he or she can be home alone without incident, you will begin to feel better about it.

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