For many parents, another school year means decision time. What do you do when your children arrive home before you return from work? Should you arrange for a caregiver, or can you leave your children home alone?
There is no magic age when children develop the maturity and good sense needed to stay alone. Some 10-year-olds are more responsible than some 14-year-olds. Other children may not be ready for self-care until they are 16 or 17.
The community education coordinators at St. Louis Children's Hospital have recommended guidelines to help you determine whether your child is ready to be home alone. These experts advise that children are physically ready to stay home by themselves when they can lock and unlock doors and windows, fix their own snacks, dial the phone and write messages. But there's an emotional component to self-care readiness as well. "Before they can safely stay by themselves, children should be able to recognize potentially dangerous situations and know how to be safe," says Mary Beth Casso, R.N., SLCH pediatric nurse educator. "You may also want to look at how equipped your child is to communicate with you if a serious problem arises. And if your children can't solve conflicts with their siblings without your constant intervention, they probably are not ready." A child caring for siblings must possess special skills and information for that task as well.
Even if your child does seem mature enough for self-care, Casso says there are other points parents should consider. For instance, a family transition period such as occurs following a divorce, a remarriage or a move, is probably not the best time to leave a child home alone. You will only want to leave a child alone in a safe home and a safe neighborhood. How long your child is alone each day also makes a difference. If there is an adult nearby where your child can go for help, let that person know your self-care arrangement and tell your child how to reach that individual.
Along with assessing a child's readiness for self-care, Casso tells parents to look at their own feelings about the situation. Will you worry about your child's safety? Do you feel guilty about leaving your child alone? Will you be able to concentrate at work when your child is home alone?
If you are unsure about the answer to these questions, you may want to try gradually setting up your child's self-care. Casso advises parents to establish a few basic home rules to follow while they are gone for 15 to 30 minutes. "When your child feels comfortable with short sessions, try longer ones. Then add another rule or give additional responsibilities."