Deciding whether your child is ready

Just as you would never let your child jump off a diving board until he knows how to swim, you want to provide your child with the safest experience possible before leaving him home alone. There is a process behind preparing a child for this independent new phase. You want to be sure your child is mature enough to handle an emergency. And that he feels comfortable being left alone. Some of these are skills that must be practiced and developed over time.

You also want to be certain there is an adult nearby your child can turn to for help. And that your neighborhood and house or apartment are as safe as possible.

Whether you have more than one child will also affect your decision-making. Two children home alone may feel more secure and less lonesome than a single child, depending on the children's ages, temperaments, and relationship. However, being home alone together may not work for all brothers and sisters, especially if sibling rivalry is a problem. It's especially important to talk with your older child about how he or she feels about taking care of a younger brother or sister.

Here are some of the things to consider as you decide whether your child is ready:

Being able to handle an emergency. This is the single most important consideration in deciding if your child is ready to care for himself. Bear in mind that good decision-making under duress, or during a crisis, is something most young children are developmentally unprepared to do, according to experts. Young children simply don't have the cognitive maturity. Being able to cope in an emergency requires know-how, self-confidence, and a sense of calm. Does your child panic when routines are disrupted? If so, this is a sign she may not be ready to handle an emergency alone. Does she know the fundamentals of first aid? This is essential for any child home alone.

Children can be trained through discussion and role-playing to recognize and respond to challenging situations. With practice and guidance they can be taught what to do in emergency situations. Also, if there is a trusted adult only minutes from the house to provide back-up in an emergency, you and your child will feel more secure.

Feeling comfortable being home alone. Your decision whether to leave your child home alone depends a lot on how your child feels about the idea. Does your child want to stay home alone? Is he comfortable with the idea? Ask your child how he feels about this. Ask if he is afraid about staying home alone. Talk about why you are choosing this arrangement. And talk about how long you plan on being gone each day. Your child may feel fine about being alone one hour a day, but not four. In gauging readiness, frequent discussions with your child are important.

Having an adult nearby your child can turn to for help. Children home alone need a "contact" person, someone they can turn to for help if they need it. Your contact person might be a block parent, relative, friend or neighbor. You want someone who can be easily reached by phone when you can't be and who can rush over in an emergency to lend a hand.

The safety of your home and neighborhood. Find out if there are ever incidents that make your child feel unsafe in your home or your neighborhood. You may not be able to change the neighborhood where you live. But there are things you can do to make your house or apartment safe for your child, as you will find out later in this booklet.

As you think about the safety of your neighborhood, you will also want to take a careful look at your child's route home from school. Remember that it's safest and best if your child walks home with a friend or sibling. Are there busy streets to cross? Are there crossing guards? Remind your child never to take short cuts home from school through deserted areas, fields, or alleyways. And never to talk with or take rides from strangers or neighbors you don't know well.

Measuring your child's mental and emotional maturity. In evaluating your child's readiness to stay home alone, you will want to look carefully at his mental skills, temperament, and emotional maturity. You might begin by answering "Yes" or "No" to the following questions:

Y N My child is responsible with his house key and rarely forgets it or misplaces it.

Y N My child can be counted on to follow instructions. For instance, she always remembers to lock the door behind her when she enters and leaves the house.

Y N When faced with a problem, my child comes up with good solutions without me. For instance, the day she broke a window playing basketball, she knew just what to do.

Y N My child is good at using the telephone. He knows not only how to dial, answer, and take messages, but how to find a number in the phone book or by calling directory assistance.

Y N My child is practiced at fire drills, and knows how to exit the house safely in case of a fire.

Y N I have seen my child stay calm in an emergency.

For example, the last time she cut her finger, instead of panicking at the sight of blood, she went to the medicine chest, got a bandage, and put it on.

Y N My child uses good judgment. He knows, for example, not to use sharp tools when I am not at home.

If you answered "Yes" to all of these questions, that is a good indicator of readiness. Your child may have reached the stage where she has acquired many of the basic skills she needs to manage at home alone.

However, your child will need more than just these basic skills to insure a successful home-alone experience. She will need to learn how to cope with occasional feelings of loneliness, fear, and boredom. She will need to be taught how to handle an unsupervised period of structured time.

Finally, in making your decision, remember that some states have laws regulating at what age a child may be left home unsupervised. Since the statutes vary from state to state, it's wise to find out what the law is where you live. The best place to obtain this information is through the agency in your state responsible for overseeing families and children. The names of these agencies can vary—the one in your state might be called the Health and Human Services Office, the Department of Human Services, or the Department of Family Services.

It's also important to remember that even in states where there is no law or regulation, if you do decide to leave your child home alone and an accident occurs, you as a parent could be found negligent.

Fortunately, most children who are capable and responsible, and who are well prepared by their parents to stay home alone, do just fine.

When you decide your child is ready to start caring for himself, whether on an occasional afternoon or more regularly, then it's time to begin the process of slowly starting to prepare him. You will want to go over rules about safety, homework, friends, chores, free time—all the details of your child's routine.

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