Every day thousands of children arrive home from school to an empty house; every week thousands of parents make decisions to leave children home alone while they go to work, run errands, or attend social engagements. It is estimated over 40 percent of children are left home at some time -- though rarely overnight. In more extreme situations, some children spend so much time without their parent(s) that these children are labelled "latch key children" -- referring to the house or apartment key strung visibly around their neck.
The popular movie "Home Alone," and its sequel, have portrayed a child's survival skills in a very humorous, but unrealistic manner. The realities facing children who find themselves home alone are very different. There are many issues and potential risks and dangers that parents should consider before a child is placed in this situation. Parents should consider the following:
- Age readiness
- Definition of parental "rules and expectations"
- How to access parents or other adults (e.g. phone numbers)
- Potentially unsafe situations (e.g. medical emergencies, fire, alcohol, drugs, strangers, guns, etc.)
- When and how to answer the phone or doorbell
- Use of phone
- Friends and visitors coming to the house
- Responsibilities for siblings
- Use of unstructured time (e.g. watch TV, videos, etc.)
- Access to "adult" cable TV
It is not possible to make a general statement about when (at what age) a child can be left home alone. Older adolescents are usually responsible enough to manage alone for limited periods of time. Parents must consider the child's level of maturity and past evidence of responsible behavior and good judgement. Time periods when parents are absent should be limited. Parents must talk with their youngsters to prepare them to develop a plan that addresses each of the issues or potential problems listed above. In addition, parents should strive to make their home as safe as possible from obvious dangers and hazards and rehearse the developed "emergency plan" with their children. Being home alone can be a frightening and potentially dangerous situation for many children and adolescents. Parents should strive to limit the times when children are home alone; and they should prepare their children in advance to deal with situations that may arise.