Home alone: When is your child ready?

My husband and my parents believe it is okay to leave my six-year-old son unattended after school for periods of 10 to 15 minutes. My parents live next door and check on him regularly. Because I am uncomfortable with this, they feel I am "babying" him. I feel it is unacceptable to leave him alone in the house even for short periods of time. Am I being unreasonable or is my caution warranted?

Question:

This is a question that all parents ask themselves at one time or another during their children's lives. Decisions about dependence and independence arise repeatedly. The answers vary depending on family culture and traditions, an individual child's development and temperament, parents' own levels of comfort and the community in which the family lives. Because of all of these variables, there cannot be any kind of set guidelines for parents about when they can leave children alone.

It sounds like there are two main issues in your situation. One is the disagreement between you and the rest of the family about your son's independence. The second issue is how to decide when your child can safely be left home alone. In your case, you have the support of extended family right next door. This may enable you to leave your son earlier than other parents who have children of a similar age. Nonetheless, it is essential that you don't leave your son until you, your family and your son all feel ready.

The concern that you are "babying" him because of this one decision doesn't really hold up. A six year old has many opportunities to take responsibility, to feel grown up and to establish his competence without staying home alone.

Here are some suggestions for encouraging your young children to begin taking on increased responsibility, some things to think about as you make your "home-alone" decision and some ways to work with your family around decision-making:

  • Consider a variety of ways for your son to take on more responsibility. Six year olds are getting to an age where they have both the physical and mental skills to take on some real responsibilities around the house. They can be responsible for cleaning up a simple area or activity (but probably not their whole room without help.) They can help sort and fold laundry, wash and chop vegetables for dinner. They can water plants, feed pets, work in the garden or sweep the walk.

    They are still at an age where they enjoy working along with you. There are other ways young children can stretch their wings. As you think of your son being "alone" in the world, you can give him little errands with which to practice. In the grocery store, you could send him to the end of the aisle to get a loaf of bread. You could leave him in the house for a few minutes while you go next door to pick up something from the grandparents. As you see how he does with these little steps, you may have a better sense of his readiness for a bigger step.
  • Think about your son's development and personality. Some children pay a lot of attention to details and to safety. Others can get very absorbed in a particular activity and forget about everything else that is going on. A child's forgetfulness when an adult is present could just merit a reminder, however, if a child were home alone, it could create a safety issue. Emotionally, some children feel very comfortable being alone. Others prefer not to be alone, or are quite fearful at the prospect.You will receive clues from your son about his readiness both by what he says and how he acts. This can be one of the factors to look at as you make your decision.
  • Look at your neighborhood and community. In your situation, you have the comfort and safety of having your parents next door. This provides a special circumstance for your family. Every parent who is considering leaving his/her child home alone will need to assess the particular neighborhood in which they live. Are there trusted neighbors who are home in the afternoon? How far away is the closest resource person? If you're considering leaving your child home alone, you need to assess your child's resourcefulness. What could your son do if he was hungry and couldn't find anything to eat? If he saw something scary on TV? If someone he didn't know knocked on the door? If there was a true emergency, would he know who and how to call?
  • Don't be pressured by cultural messages that say children need to grow up fast. Children have a lot of time ahead of them to be grown up. There is no hurry for them to get out on their own. There is a push in contemporary society for children to do more self-care. There are movies which demonstrate how capable young children are to be "home alone" for days on end. There are alarming numbers of very young "latchkey" children who not only care for themselves, but may also be responsible for younger siblings. This is due largely to increasing numbers of parents in the workforce and inadequate childcare alternatives for families. But elementary-aged children still need the support, nurturing, mentoring, attention and safety of caring adults.
  • Engage in a dialogue with your family about independence /dependence issues. You, your husband and your parents all have hopes, dreams and expectations for your son. The more opportunities you have to listen to each other's ideas, the better your chances at discovering ways for him to grow, experiment and try new things in ways you all feel comfortable with. At different times, each of you may need to stretch a little to make room for each other's ideas.
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