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Home alone: Is your child ready?

Opinions vary on the right age to leave a child alone after school, but experts agree that the decision depends on the individual child. “There is no absolute age. Parents have to take their child’s maturity level into account,” says Mary Lou Gavin, MD, a pediatrician at the Nemours/A. I. duPont Hospital for Children and medical editor for KidsHealth.org.

State laws in our region leave the decision up to parents, though it could be interpreted as neglect if the child is very young. “Parents should make the decision because they know their child best,” says Dr. Gavin.

Questions to determine readiness:

• How well does your child follow through on your requests?
• How honest and trustworthy is he?
• Would she know how to react and what to do in an emergency?
• How anxious is your child?

At some point, kids become too old for their after-school programs, which are generally available through 5th grade. Jennifer, mother of a 15-year-old Downingtown High School West student, says, “300 bucks a month wasn’t worth it” for a supervised program when her daughter needed to be home alone “for an occasional 20 minutes after school.” Her daughter began in 4th grade with brief periods home alone. Experts say this approach is good training for longer, more regular times home alone.

During a trial stay-at-home-alone period, make sure your child follows the rules you establish, advises Dr. Gary J. Kushner, EdD, a psychologist practicing in Cherry Hill, NJ. Keep the lines of communication open to make sure she is comfortable alone and not too anxious.

Siblings

Rules to consider

If your kids will stay home alone after school, “It’s very important that the family has rules,” says Dr. Mary Lou Gavin, medical editor for kidshealth.org.

Consider setting rules about:
• Answering the phone
• Answering the door
• Doing homework before watching TV; limits on TV-watching
• Computer, Internet and cell phone usage
• Having friends over
• Using the  microwave, stove and toaster oven 

Siblings staying home alone together can make the situation easier or harder, “depending on how the kids get along,” says Dr. Kushner. Because taking care of a younger sibling adds responsibility, experts suggest that an older child begin by staying home by himself before also taking care of a sibling.

Lori Diamanty of North Wilmington, DE allowed her sons Thomas and Christian to stay home when the older of the two reached middle school age. “These guys are exceptionally close. They really get along,” she says. Before she left them alone, she insisted that Thomas, who is two years older than his brother, take a home safety course.

Who’s ready and who’s not?

“This is a developmental milestone,” says Dr. Kushner, “and a step into independence.” Successfully staying home alone after school can give a big boost to a child’s confidence and self-esteem.

For more info

Find guidelines and other information about kids staying home alone at these websites.
• Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

• KidsHealth.org
• The Learning Community

• U.S. Dept of Health & Human Services
(PDF)

To determine whether your child is ready to stay home alone after school, consider her personality and temperament, Dr. Gavin advises. If your child is not good at following rules or instructions, or if your child is generally fearful, he might not be ready to stay home alone. Signs of trouble include anxiousness, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and difficulty concentrating on homework or getting chores done.

To ease minor anxieties, “Let them know where you can be reached or who else is home nearby so they don’t feel totally alone,” suggests Dr. Gavin. Also, provide structure. Leave a prepared snack, give them chores to do and a time to call and check in. “This leaves them less time to sit around feeling anxious,” says Dr. Gavin.

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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