Home Alone: Is My Child Old Enough?

HYG-5321
Family and Consumer Sciences
Date: 
04/02/2010
Kirk Bloir, Program Director, Family and Consumer Sciences

Whether for a few minutes or a few hours, all parents will face this dilemma: Is my child old enough to stay home alone?

If you look to Ohio's state or local laws, you won't find a minimum age specified. Instead, the Ohio Revised Code says that parents are responsible for providing adequate and proper supervision and care for their children. So, the real question isn't so much one of age, but one of your child's maturity, readiness, and your ability to plan for safety, emergencies, and activities.

Parents need to look at their child's maturity and readiness in three broad areas.

Physical

Can your child lock and unlock the doors and windows; use the telephone; and operate appliances safely (such as a can opener, microwave, toaster oven, stove top)?

Intellectual

Your child must be able to read and take a written message; follow and give directions; and understand and describe house rules and safety/emergency procedures.

Social/Emotional

Your child needs to feel good about being left home alone; feel confident in his/her ability to take care of him/herself; and be comfortable with limited social interaction.

Take cues from your child. If he/she says he/she is afraid, lonely, or unsure of his/her ability to stay home alone, he/she is not ready. Once you believe your child is ready, create a plan. Begin by talking with your child about the possibility of staying home alone. Ask if he/she would like to stay home alone. If not, don't force the issue. If yes, then do the following.

  • Talk about house rules and expectations, and write down safety and emergency procedures. Ensure that your child understands what to do and who to contact in case of an emergency.
  • Make a list of play rules. Is it OK to play outside? When? With other neighborhood kids? What activities are "off limits"?
  • Develop a list of activities, besides watching TV and playing video games.
  • Establish Internet and texting rules and limits (ikeepsafe.org has excellent resources that can help you and your child).
  • Stock a crafts center.
  • Discuss meals and snacks and how to prepare them.
  • Decide if any household chores are to be done, and discuss standards for their completion.
  • Rehearse what to do in case of a power outage, fire, or tornado (see homesafetycouncil.org).
  • Discuss how the telephone should be answered and what information is OK to give out (never let a stranger know a child is home alone).
  • Determine who should be let in the house (uniformed persons are strangers, too).
  • Learn how to do basic first aid (completing a Red Cross course is recommended).
  • Establish a "code word" to use if you need to communicate to your child through another person.
  • Rehearse possible situations that your child might face while home alone, and discuss how to handle them safely.

At the end of this process, you must be confident that your child can do basic problem-solving and make good decisions in your absence. Be sure that your child has at least three alternate contacts whom he/she can call, and that there is a "safe place" in the neighborhood where he/she can go for help (such as to a neighbor's, to the fire station, or to a place of worship). Post contact and emergency numbers next to the phone. If your child has a cell phone, make sure the numbers are added to his/her contacts or built-in phone book.

There is no magic age at which children can stay home alone. What matters most is (1) whether they are mature enough, (2) they know how to respond in emergency situations, and (3) they are willing to follow directions and rules. If your children are not comfortably self-sufficient in your absence, they are not ready to stay home alone.

References

  • Casper, L. M., & Smith, K. E. (2004). Self-care: Why do parents leave their children unsupervised? Demography, 41(2), 285–301.
  • Sloan Work and Family Research Network. (July 2009). Questions and answers about school-age children in self-care: A Sloan Work and Family Research Network fact sheet. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College. Retrieved from wfnetwork.bc.edu/pdfs/selfcare.pdf.
  • Vandivere, S., Tout, K., Zaslow, M., Calkins, J., & Capizzano, J. (2003). Unsupervised time: Family and child factors associated with self-care (Occasional Paper No. 71). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Retrieved from urban.org/url.cfm?ID=310894.
  • Zielewski, E., Malm, K., & Geen, R. (2006). Children caring for themselves and child neglect: When do they overlap? Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Retrieved from urban.org/UploadedPDF/311323_DP06-03.pdf.
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