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Today, Dr. Mary is addressing the topic of leaving your child home alone.
Q: I want to leave my 9-year-old daughter home by herself while I run some errands. Is she too young to be home alone? Is there a law or something against this?
A: Unfortunately, this issue isn't as clear-cut as it should be. It's likely that your state doesn't have specific laws about what age a child can stay home alone. This is something that you, as the expert on your daughter, will have to decide. Of course, we all see examples in the media of other "experts" that make the wrong call.
I will say that it's common for children to begin to stay home alone when they're between the ages of 10 and 12 years. Why this age range? Because, in general, this seems to be the age where a lot of kids really become more responsible and more independent. For example, children in this age range can usually get ready for school, walk to school alone (if they live close enough), do their homework, make a snack or even a meal for themselves, and complete their household chores without much (if any) reminding or cajoling from their parents. Also, generally, kids of this age have better-evolved problem-solving skills and are better at making good choices on their own, without adult intervention.
However, these characteristics aren't enough. Your child should really want to start staying home alone. Believe it or not, not every 10-year-old has the desire to be on their own, even for a short time. Some kids tend to be more cautious, or even frightened, and may express a discomfort or an unwillingness at the mention of being by him/herself.
If having your child stay home alone is something that you both want to try out, here are some things to think about beforehand:
Kids who stay home alone should have good communication skills. That is, they should know what to say when someone calls (or know not to answer the phone while you're away), know how to access emergency numbers and how to report an emergency, and be able to determine if and when parents should be called for help with something.
Children staying home alone should be able to respond to a variety of possible emotional "situations," such as being afraid, lonely, and bored, and should be able to react to various accidental events, such as being locked out of the house or having the power go out. If a child happens to be home with siblings, they should be able to manage possible conflicts. The latter may be hard to even imagine.
It's a good idea to reiterate or establish some house rules before leaving your kids home alone, such as when it's okay to leave the house, have friends over, and talk on the phone (although this may be less of an issue than texting at this age). Rules regarding use of appliances (e.g., oven, microwave) and electronics (e.g., computer) may also be helpful.
It's also a good idea for kids to have some basic personal and home safety skills if they're staying home alone. For example, how to lock/unlock the windows, if and how to answer the door when alone, what to do if they smell smoke or gas, and what to do if they think someone is in the house are all good skills to have. First aid perhaps? If you believe in Murphy's Law, these are all good things to examine.
There's a lot to know, so even the most responsible kid can be overwhelmed. It may be best to think of this as a process, where you teach a few skills at a time. You may want to role-play some possible situations with your child and have them practice their responses. For example, you could pretend that you're a teenager who comes to the door selling magazines for a local charity. Or you could be a young mother with a baby who knocks on your door asking to use the telephone. As far-fetched as these may sound to us, kids may not know how to respond to the myriad of possible situations that could occur. Use these as springboards into discussions of unlikely, but possible, scenarios. Of course, your goal isn't to scare your child. However, if your child is going to be home alone, he/she needs to know what to do to stay safe. It may be helpful to start with short periods of home alone time, increasing the length of time as your child becomes more comfortable. Checking in with your child while you're away is also a given.
This can be a positive "milestone" for both you and your child. Your child can develop a sense of competency and increased independence at being able to take care of her/himself, and you can theoretically enjoy some, dare I say, independence of your own.
Dr. Mary is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.
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