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Make Time to Practice Home-Alone Skills

Young Adult reads book alone on couch

Is Your Child Ready to Stay Alone?

Knowing if a child is ready to spend time at home alone isn’t always easy. Children vary in maturity, and many other important factors may have an influence on your decision. The age of your child by itself is not enough information to determine this.

There is no magic age at which a child is ready to stay at home alone, although readiness signs often appear between the ages of 10 and 12. Children should be at least 12 years old to look after younger siblings. Look for signs that give you an indication your child may be ready to stay at home alone. Readiness signs may include:

  • being agreeable to staying home alone
  • not being easily frightened
  • showing signs of accepting responsibility
  • awareness of the needs of others
  • an ability to consider alternatives and solve problems
  • independent decision making skills
  • the ability to use unstructured time wisely
  • being ready for school on time
  • completing homework and household chores without excessive prodding
  • letting you know where he or she is going and when he or she will return

Location of Your Home Makes a Difference

You may feel your child is ready to stay home alone, but you have other important considerations, including these:

  • Do you live in a remote area without close neighbors?
  • Do you consider your neighborhood relatively safe?
  • Is your home safe? Does it have working smoke detectors, correct storage of medications and chemicals, and locks on doors and windows?
  • Also, does it have a reliable telephone?
  •  Can your child reach you or another responsible adult with whom to check in at agreed times or report an emergency?
  • How long will your child be alone?
  • Will your child have limited opportunities to socialize with other children or take part in after-school or community-sponsored activities because he or she is isolated at home?

After considering some of these factors, you may decide your child should not stay at home alone, even if he or she shows signs of readiness.

Preparing Your Child for Self-care

If you choose self-care, preparing your child and yourself can make it a safe experience. Children who stay at home alone may need to react to a number of situations, such as:

  • being locked out of the house
  • unwelcome strangers at the door or on the telephoneor computer
  • a fire
  • a storm
  • a home accident needing First Aid
  • peer pressure
  • an animal bite or bee sting
  • a child becoming ill

Teaching children telephone skills, personal safety skills and home safety skills is important so they are better prepared to handle possible emergency situations. Having your family decide on house rules to serve as a guide when you are not home also is important. House rules about the following may be helpful:

  • leaving the house or yard
  • inviting in friends
  • telephone limitations and privileges
  • homework
  • household tasks
  • television viewing/computer use/video gaming – choices and limits (programs to watch, viewing time, etc.)
  • snack foods – kind and amount allowed
  • kitchen – use of appliances and clean-up responsibilities after snacking
  • what is off limits – access to power tools, firearms, your personal items
  • other matters important to your family

Working with your child over an extended time on self-care guidelines usually is best. Too much information at one time may be overwhelming. Information usually is remembered better if situations are acted out. A fire drill or role playing telephone conversations, a response to a pretend storm or stranger at the door are good teaching tools.

Programs and home study materials are available in some communities to help parents work out a self-care plan. Check with your NDSU Extension county office, school, faith community or county social services office to see if such information is available.

Giving Self-care a Try

Once you have worked with your child and feel quite confident that he or she is prepared with adequate knowledge and skills to stay alone, you may want to set up a trial period. Begin by leaving your child in charge for short periods (an hour or less) during daylight hours. If your child knows this is a testing period, making needed changes may be easier.

During the trial period, make a special effort to talk frequently with your child about his or her feelings, discuss house rules and review safety skills. If you feel comfortable with your arrangement, proceed with confidence but be flexible in making changes as needed. Keep communication open with your child. Feelings about being home alone, house rules and safety are important to discuss even through the teen years and any time a family situation changes.

For additional information, see the N.D. Department of Human Services and Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota brochure “Home Alone: Is Your Child Ready?” 

Source: Parenting Post Newsletter, 4th grade, JanuaryKim Bushaw, NDSU Family Science Specialist, 701-231-7450.