Is your child ready to stay home alone?
The age at which a child is ready to be alone varies, but many state laws allow for kids 11 and up to stay alone after school.1
You can decide for yourself what makes the most sense. Pay attention to how calm they are in any unexpected situation, and how much responsibility they take in other areas of their lives. For example, will he or she do homework without being nagged? Can they do chores without being reminded?
You can also test your child with a few short trips away from the house to see how he or she feels. Talk with your child or children about how it will be when they are home alone. They may express fear or worry about being lonely. Explain to them that it’s only for a few hours, they will be busy with homework or chores or activities that you choose, and that if they follow some ground rules, they will be perfectly safe.
It’s imperative that you put the following 10 rules in place to ensure the safety of your kids when they’re home alone:
- Lock the doors and windows.
Make sure kids know how to use all locks and can set and disarm any alarm system. On a warm day, your kids may need a breeze and some fresh air. Make sure kids stay in the room where the windows are open, and that they close and lock them when they move to another room. Be sure to check the house for open windows once you get home and it gets dark. Open windows offer easy access to burglars.
- Always follow the checklist.2
Print out the checklist below for an easy way to remind kids how to check in with you and what the house rules are. These are starter ideas, and you can add whatever else is important to your household (feed the dog, call a neighbor, etc.) All-important is making sure that kids always check in with mom and/or dad as soon as they get home.
- Never open the door to anyone.
This obviously means any stranger who comes to the door, but should also include delivery people and maintenance or service people. Instruct kids to either not answer the door at all, or to talk through the door and tell the visitor that mom and dad can’t talk right now. It may be tricky to get kids to understand that this is not telling a lie and it’s for their benefit, so be sure to explain that the statement is in fact true! Be sure to schedule any deliveries or service calls when an adult is home to avoid any complications.
- Don’t talk about being home alone, and don’t tell callers mom and dad aren’t there.
Warn children not to tell strangers that they are going to be home alone, and not to post that information on social media. When talking to strangers at the door or on the phone, never tell them that mom and dad aren’t home. Refer to rule #3—have kids say mom and dad can’t talk right now.3 If kids feel bothered or frightened of a stranger on the phone or at the door, have them call you or a neighbor for support and instructions.
- No friends unless mom and dad give permission.
It’s important to know who is in your home and know that they will follow the same rules your kids follow. It’s a good idea to insist on having your kids set up any visits, play dates or homework dates ahead of time. Talk to the child’s parent about your rules and make sure everyone is on the same page. Your rules apply to all the kids in your home.
- Don’t leave the house or yard.
Make sure kids understand that they are to stay home when you’re not there. Of course, they can go outside and play in a yard or designated common areas, such as a courtyard or playground, but it’s not okay to go anywhere else. If kids hear strange noises, they should know to call you or a neighbor, not go and see where the noise is coming from. If there is a fire or other emergency situation, then leaving is, of course, permitted and crucial, but make sure they know they can go to a neighbor’s home. Give two trusted neighbors a copy of your key and make sure they are willing and able to help your child if needed.
- Limit phone, computer and TV time.
A key way to keep kids comfortable when they are home alone is to keep them busy. During the school year, they can do homework between certain hours, and watch TV or go on the computer after that (programs and internet websites are up to your discretion). It may make sense to put a time limit on computer and TV time and have chores that they can do, as well as a few fun activities that you choose together. Examples include favorite hobby or craft, reading or exercise, such as dancing.
- Know and practice first aid.
Any child who is going to be alone needs to know a few first–aid basics, such as how to bandage a cut. They should know where the first aid supplies are (put them in a place all family members can find and reach). Make sure your child understands the difference between a simple mishap and a true emergency. Older children can take CPR classes with mom and dad.3
- Only use certain appliances.
Kids always need an after school snack. Make sure you have healthy favorites on hand and, if you are allowing kids to heat things up, make sure they can fully operate any appliances they will need to use. If you let them use the stove, be sure you carefully demonstrate how to turn it on, and make sure they turn it off. Remind them to keep loose clothing and big sleeves away from high heat or flame. Have them turn pot handles inward to prevent scalding spills.
A microwave is an excellent alternative because it doesn’t get hot and turns off automatically. Children should know what can go into a microwave and that they know not to put utensils in it. Be sure to explain how hot food is once it comes out, and teach them to wait a bit before they take a bite or open a bag of popcorn to prevent minor burns.
- Know what to do in an emergency.
They should know how to call 911 in the event of an emergency. Make sure they know their full name and address and direct them on how important it is to keep calm in that situation. Keep emergency numbers posted in the kitchen so that if your child is under stress he or she will have a reference guide.
BONUS TIP: For mom and dad.
You will want to prep your house to be sure there are no obvious hazards. Make sure poisons like cleaners are clearly labeled and/or locked away.
Be sure to have first-aid supplies on hand. Check the house and yard for hazards, and put away scissors, knives, tools and other potentially dangerous items. Make sure kids have access to flashlights and know your family emergency plan. Keep smoke alarms in working condition with fresh batteries.