My kids are ages 6, 8 and 10 and I’ve always wondered when it’s “ok” to let them stay home for a while on their own. Age 10? Age 12?
Different people have different schools of thought on this one, and even though most of us probably were home alone as kids at a MUCH younger age, it is a different world and we do need to be cautious. Some states actually have laws on the age but many do not, leaving it up to the parents judgement.
I think it depends on the child and their personality and maturity. Some kids may be sooner earlier than others. I also think it’s a matter of their level of knowledge.
Clearly my middle and youngest are far too young to stay home alone, but my oldest will be 11 in November so we have started “prepping” her for this big step. I have left her home twice for 15 minutes at a time while I dropped off my son at practice. We addressed a few things before I did, but I know we have much more to cover before I let her stay home for a longer period of time. If you have older kids and are wondering if now is the right time, ask yourself a few questions:
- How responsible is your child? Can they be counted on to complete homework and chores without being reminded? Are they good rule followers? Do they usually make good decisions or is he or she prone to taking risks?
- How do they react to unexpected situations? Do they panic or keep a level head? Do they give up quickly and turn to you for solutions?
- Would they know what to do in an emergency? Have they had any training? Would they know what to do in different situations?
Using these questions as a guide, and knowing your own child obviously, most parents can probably be a pretty good judge on knowing if their child is ready or not to stay home on their own. For example, my oldest is a fantastic rule follower, very responsible and trust worthy. I’d trust her to stay home for a while. But my youngest daughter is a COMPLETELY different story. She a wild one who loves to take risks and push the limits. I’m not quite sure she’d be ready at 10 to stay home alone (or ever!!!)
When you DO decide to make this leap, here are 12 things your child should know before staying home alone.
1. First aid
This one is huge. The only way to ward off panic is to arm them with the knowledge of what to do in an emergency. My kids haven’t done this yet but it’s on my list. I know I’ll be signing up my girls for a babysitting class when they can and my son does scouts so he learns some there. No matter what, they NEED to know when and how to call 911. They need to know what is a real emergency, such as fire or injury, and what is not and they need to know call 911 even before they even call you. Make sure you give examples of when NOT to call and NEVER call 911 as a joke.
2. Who to call for help
Obviously, not all emergencies require 911 so for times like these, there should be a list of relatives and trusted neighbors they can contact if they can’t reach you. This list should be placed in an easy to find place or programmed into their phones.
3. Your fire safety plan
Every family should have a fire safety plan, and they should have it memorized. Make sure they know if a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide monitor starts to alarm, they should get out of the house immediately, and only then go to a designated spot and then make the emergency call. Go over and practice escape routes and locations of escape ladders with them (if you have them). Make sure they know to stay low and the classic “stop, drop, and roll” too. If you live in an area with frequent natural dangers like tornadoes, make sure they know what to do if the siren sounds.
4. How to use your alarm system
If you have an alarm system, they should know how to use it!
5. How to shut off utilities
Let’s get back to that overflowing toilet. Their phone call to you should be to confirm they did everything correctly. They should know how to shut the water off to each toilet and sink, and where the main water shut-off is in your house. If you have natural gas, they should know where to shut that off, too. This is a good one for both Mom and Dad to know too (because I’ll be honest that I didn’t know this for while!!)
6. What to do if the power goes out
Your kids should know where the flashlights and batteries are kept in the event of a power outage. If a storm pops up, they should be taught to think ahead and grab the flashlights before the power goes out. I would not advise them being allowed to use candles, but that’s just me!
7. What appliances they are allowed to use
This will vary per family and child, but make sure your kids know what they are allowed and not allowed to use. Can they use the stove? Then cover the emergencies that could arise with that (like different types of fires and what natural gas smells like). Are they microwave only? Then explain what they can and can’t reheat in and how to properly use it. They should be clear on what’s ok and not ok to use when they are home by themselves.
8. What to do if the phone rings
The easiest thing by far is to let it go to voicemail, but if you do have your child answer it to make sure they never say they are home alone. They should also never say who they are.
9. Who they can’t call or have over
What’s your policy on friends over? Ok or not? Clearly, with much older kids this would probably be ok, as long as the other parents knew you weren’t home. Younger kids (like aged 11, 12 or 13) may not want to be allowed to have friends over, but, again, that’s a parent’s preference. No matter what is allowed, they need to be CLEAR on it.
10. What to do if the doorbell rings
Making a rule never to open the door is almost a given, but should your child answer through the door? This is a tricky one. I’d have to lean towards NO, but, you’d have to decide that for yourself. You also need to cover particular situations, even as unlikely as they seem. Teach your kids never to respond to “Your parents are hurt, I need you to come with me now.” This is by far, a more common tactic than “Want some candy?”
Reassure them that a trusted relative or friend would get them if something were wrong. Even if a police officer comes to the door telling them to open it, instruct them to tell the officer that they will call the police department for confirmation before opening the door.
11. Are they allowed outside?
This depends on your neighborhood and their age. Streams, creeks, and pools are completely off limits. They should know how to handle the dog needing to go out and what to do if a pet runs off too.
12. Your technology rules
Lastly, you need to be very clear about how and when they can use the TV, computer, and iPads. They should know what they can use and what they can’t and what sites or games are allowed and which are blacklisted!
Staying home alone is just one more step in the dance of growing up.
With preparation and practice, your child can be better prepared for unexpected situations that may arise. This is a big step for both kids AND parents so everyone will feel better if these things are covered, practiced and memorized.
A version of this piece originally appeared at ourthreepeas.com, published with permission.