Whether it’s an unexpected day off from school, a meeting that runs late at work or a last minute invite to an event, at some point there will be a scenario when you consider leaving your child home alone.
There’s a lot to consider before you take the first step into a new level of independence with your child.
Is it Legal?
In Ohio there are no laws regarding leaving your child home alone. “It’s really based on the parent’s discretion based on your child’s ability to be safe,” explains Amy Davidson, deputy director of social services for Summit County Children Services.
From time to time, there are news stories about parents leaving their children alone and the police get involved, but Davidson says those cases usually involve small children.
“We’ve had cases where a parent might leave a 3- and a 5-year-old home alone,” Davidson says. “They put them to bed for the night and they think they can go out. Or they’ll leave an 8- or 9-year-old alone with really young siblings.”
Is Your Child Mature Enough?
While there’s no magic age for leaving your child home alone, there are some maturity traits you can consider when making your decision.
First, is your child physically and mentally able to be left alone? Do they generally obey the rules and make good decisions?
“You can have a 10- or 11-year-old who is responsible enough to stay home alone while you run down to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, or you could have a 16-year -old with a cognitive delay who isn’t responsible enough to be left alone,” Davidson explains.
Ask your child if they’re ready to be alone; some kids might be excited for the new responsibility, while others might be nervous. Talk to your child about their fears of being alone.
Another thing to consider is if your child will be watching younger siblings. They might feel more comfortable being with another child verses being alone. Think about whether the older child will need to help the younger one with meals or using the restroom.
If your child will be watching younger siblings, you may want to consider enrolling him or her into a babysitting class. Many classes typically begin at age 11.
“They will go over things like choking, CPR, first aid and how to tell when there’s something you can handle yourself versus the need to call an adult or 911,” says Jennifer Walker, manager of the UH Rainbow Injury Prevention Center.
How to be Safe
Before you leave your child home alone, it’s important to come up with a safety plan.
“Go over some situations with them,” Walker says. “Talk about what they should do if someone comes to the door, how they answer the phone, and what to say if someone asks for mom or dad.”
Establish clear rules and boundaries of what they can and can’t do when you’re not home. For example, are they allowed to play outside, go online or use the kitchen?
Plan ahead for meals or leave out appropriate snacks that are easy to eat and clean up.
“You don’t want them attempting to cook mac and cheese if they’ve never used the stove before,” Davidson adds.
Keep emergency information in an easy to find spot and choose a trusted friend or relative as an emergency contact.
“Give your child information on how to get ahold of you, as well as a close-by adult they can call such as neighbor or grandparent,” Walker says.
You’ll also want to make sure your home is free of any safety hazards.
Giving it a Try
Let your child know when they’ll be home alone and make sure they feel prepared before you leave. Start with a short amount of time and make sure to call and check on them to see how they’re doing and if they have any concerns.
“If the first run isn’t successful, I would ask the child what made them uncomfortable,” Walker says. “Was it nighttime? Was it too long? Get to the root of what made them uncomfortable.”
With the right preparation, letting your child stay home alone can be a positive way for them to gain responsibility and independence.