Ready to be Home Alone?
Home Alone: Is Your Child Ready?
By S.C. Torrington
Eventually, all parents must decide if and when their child is ready to be left at home alone.
At first, it may be for just 15 minutes while you run to the local store. Then, for a few hours during a client meeting or lunch with a friend. For many parents who work outside of the home, their child returns from school to an empty house for several afternoon hours. And summer vacation is no vacation from concerns about child care and supervision.
If anything, summertime can be the hardest for families who, through choice or necessity, decide their child is prepared for self-care.
“Children under 8 cannot be left alone or out of sight of an adult. Period,” says Ginger Rigney, public information officer for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. “And this includes in vehicles as well as dwellings.”
National news sources have reported the potential tragedy of leaving small children alone in cars with ignition keys or exposed to the elements. In addition, Maryland state law mandates that young children cannot be left in the care of a person who is “not reliable or who is under 13 years of age.”
At least families with teenage siblings have more options once they determine that the older child is reliable enough to handle babysitting responsibilities. However, it is those children ages 8 through 12 who are legally old enough to be left alone all day—but may not be emotionally old enough to be left alone for more than an hour that cause parents so much angst and have them looking for options and advice.
The National SAFE KIDS Campaign, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of unintentional childhood injury, recommends that children not be left home alone before the age of 12. Also, Executive Director Heather Paul, Ph.D., is quoted on its website (listed below): “Children mature at different rates, so it is crucial to evaluate your child’s individual development as well as physical capabilities.”
Honestly assess your child’s maturity level. Give him or her some practice at being independent and responsible while you are still at home. Ask your child to complete easy tasks for you. Let him or her use the phone to dial family and friends. Watch how your child reacts to new situations and interacts with strangers. Then, consider the following list of questions compiled by ChildCare Aware, an agency dedicated to helping parents locate proper child care. If you can answer “yes” to most of them, it may indicate that your child is prepared for self-care.
· Has he or she handled brief periods of being left alone well?
· Will he or she come straight home after school?
· Will your child be lonely or frightened when by himself or herself?
· Can your child manage simple jobs such as fixing a snack and taking phone messages?
· Is he or she physically able to unlock and lock the doors at home?
· Can your child solve small problems by himself or herself?
· Does he or she know when and how to seek outside help?
· Is he or she prepared to handle an accident or an emergency?
· Will your child follow the rules set for him or her, and use his or her time productively?
Establishing rules and routines can help you and your child feel safe, secure and responsible. Let your child help set up those rules and agree on what the consequences will be for breaking them. Some basics considerations should include television and computer use, playing outdoors or in the house with friends. Can your kid safely use a sharp knife? The microwave? The stove? Is your child expected to do chores or have homework completed by a certain time?
Create a family message center with important information and encouraging notes. There’s a great “Safety Tips for Latch Key Children” form presented by the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department on its website (listed below), which can be downloaded and modified for your family. In addition to safety rules, it includes space for names and numbers that your child may need but could easily forget in an emergency.
As a parent, it’s your responsibility to make sure your child’s Home Alone experience isn’t anything like that mayhem-filled movie. Ask yourself, is your home safe?
Secure away and discuss any potentially dangerous items—such as medicines, guns, alcohol, power tools or cleaning products—which are definitely things you don’t want your child getting into. Have a first aid kit and flashlight with fresh batteries handy.
The National Crime Prevention Council’s McGruff the Crime Dog website (see below) created this list of safety rules to teach, review and repeat with your child.
· Check in with you or a neighbor immediately after arriving home.
· Know how to call 9-1-1, your area’s emergency number or the operator.
· Be able to give directions to your home, in case of emergency.
· Know never to accept gifts or rides from people your child does not know well.
· Know how to use the door and window locks, as well as the alarm system, if you have one.
· Understand that he or she should never to let anyone into your home without first having your permission.
· Know to never let a caller at the door or on the phone know that he or she is alone. Teach your child to simply say, “Mom [or Dad] can’t come to the phone [or door] right now.”
· Be able to carry a house key in a safe place (such as inside a shirt pocket or sock). Never leave it under a mat or on a ledge outside the house.
· Know how to escape in case of fire.
· Know not to go into an empty house or apartment if things don’t look right—such as if there is a broken window, ripped screen or opened door.
· Be ready to let you know about anything that frightens your child or makes him or her feel uncomfortable.
Although you aren’t looking for a babysitter, enlist the help of a trusted neighbor who may be at home during the day. Find a nearby “safe house” where your child knows she can call or even go to should an emergency arise. Don’t be afraid to ask neighbors to inform you if they should see or hear anything that may cause you concern.
If possible, occasionally call or come home a little earlier than expected. This isn’t tattling or spying. It’s better that you learn of problems directly or through your neighbors than from Protective Services after an anonymous report is filed. Or worse, after your child is physically or emotionally injured.
Continually evaluate the situation. Do you see any negative or positive changes in your child? For most children, being home alone is another empowering milestone along that bumpy road to maturity. But, occasionally, a child, who does fine for a few hours alone after school, may not be ready to be safely left alone all day during the summer. If this should be the case, check with your local school system or community agencies such as the YMCA, places of worship or other parents for advice on finding low-cost after-school or summer child care in your area. Help is out there.
Finally, make sure your child understands that being left home alone is not a punishment—it’s a privilege. Remind your child that it’s because he or she has proven that he or she is grown-up enough to be given the opportunity to stay home alone. Plus, he or she is helping the entire family. That is, however, after you’ve helped your child by making sure the experience is a safe and positive one. BC
Resources for Families with Stay-At-Home-Alone Kids
Child Care Resource and Referral Agency, featuring Child Care Aware. Call 800-424-2246 or go to www.childcareaware.org for help with choosing and using before- and after-school care.
COPE, Inc. Call 800-247-3054 or go to www.cope-inc.com for workplace/family library resources on a variety of topics.
National Crime Prevention Council, featuring McGruff the Crime Dog. Visit the website www.mcgruff.org for information on child safety, including creating a McGruff Safe House.
National SAFE KIDS Campaign. Visit the website www.safekids.org for information on promoting safe habits and preventing childhood injuries.
Local Agencies of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, Social Services Administration, Child Protective Services
Baltimore City, 410-361-2235 (24 hours).
Baltimore County, 410-853-3000 (24 hours).
Carroll County, 410-386-3300.
Harford County, 410-836-4713 (after hours, call 410-838-6600).
Howard County, 410-872-4203 (after hours, call 410-313-2929).