Leaving Kids Home Alone

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I’ve recently had the opportunity to write a few articles for Mi Child magazine.  I thought I’d share the latest one here.  I’m sure we’ve all wondered what the “magic” age is to leave a child at home alone for a short period of time.  That’s what this article is all about.

When It’s Time For…

Staying Home Alone

Our brand new baby was just two weeks old. Our church was offering a Parents Night Out with free child care. What could be better? We needed some time to talk without the constant drone of crying or burping or puking in the background. We dropped our firstborn baby girl off at the nursery and with trembling hands I gave her over to the nursery worker. I was a brand new Mommy. I barely let anyone touch her let alone keep her for an hour. The worker sweetly said, “She’ll be having Cheerios for a snack then?” I literally sucked air. “Um..no. She is two weeks old.” I almost cried. I changed my mind on the spot. I could not leave my baby alone with a woman who thinks she can give a two week old baby Cheerios! I began to panic…which meant my innards got all twisted and my lip began to tremble, and my chin quiver. Rob said, “She’ll be fine.” Grabbed my hand, and we walked out. I sat absolutely silent during dinner, and Rob asked the server to bring the check quickly. I had left my baby alone too soon.

Fast forward eleven years. My little baby and her sisters began declaring their independence, trying to prove by any means possible that they would be fine if I left them alone for a few minutes at a time. My mind saw the teeny baby being passed across the counter to Cheerio lady.

But the day came when I knew I needed to test their independence. I needed to run a quick errand and did not want to have to bundle all three girls up, get what I needed at the store, unbundle and defrost three kids, causing the errand to triple in time from thirty minutes to at least ninety.

It was their one big chance. It was their test. If they could make it 30 minutes alone this time, I would breathe easier the next. My girls were 11, 9, and 5 at the time. I knew Maddie could handle herself alone-she’s always been mature and cool-headed for her age. I knew Whitney could do it. I knew Belle couldn’t, so I brought her with me on my short errand. I left my cell phone number next to the phone, put the phone next to them where they were sitting, showed them how to hit 1 to speed dial my phone, reviewed all emergency instructions, including not going to the door under any circumstances if the doorbell rang.

The girls simultaneously rolled their eyes as they sat bleary-eyed in front of a Disney Channel show. I knew they couldn’t get into too much trouble watching this show they were so engaged in, and I’d be home before it was over.

I buckled up Belle in the van, came back in the house, yelled last minute instructions down the basement stairs and heard grumbles back up the stairs in response. I ran to the grocery store and back in record time, still a little nervous about leaving them alone.

Twenty minutes later I walked in the house, put down my grocery bag and yelled, “I’m home!” No response. I ran down the stairs to find three girls instead of two. The girls didn’t even look up from the T.V. Their friend was at my scrapbooking desk, using my very expensive and favorite paper and supplies. “She really, really wanted to come in.” One of them responded-still not looking up from the T.V.

Nothing terrible happened–minus a few scrapbooking supplies ruined, but I knew that if they ran up the stairs and let this friend in with just a little coaxing from her, they were not ready to be left alone yet.

Test failed. I really couldn’t believe it, and was mad at myself for over estimating their ability to follow a short set of rules for 30 minutes. First the Cheerio lady, and now this. I could see my children swaddled to me forever at this point.

I gave them a few more months of maturing time, gave the test again, and they passed with flying colors. They have done great every time I have left them alone since then.

We all know that is a funny story with a happy ending. No one got hurt. But, would my kids be prepared for the worst? What about yours?

With the holidays upon us, the question like the mistletoe hanging in the air looms above us: How young is old enough to leave your kids home alone?

Officer Edward Kozcan of the South Bend Police Department pointed out to me that there really is no law about what age a child can be left home alone. He offers this common sense advice:

Does the child know CPR?

The American Red Cross offers CPR/basic first aid classes for babysitter kids starting at age 11.  If a child at 11 can learn what to do with basic life skills then that is a good capability and very basic skill to have.
Can they think and function under stress? Does your kid freak out or do the opposite and shut down during a crisis? A level headed kid is the best kind of kid to leave alone.

Is the home a safe environment? Is there a pool at the house?  If a toddler the 12 year old is watching were to fall in, can a 12 year old rescue the toddler from the pool?  What about other safety hazards?
What are the defined rules of the house and the situation

· Children need to have a clear set of rules to follow, such as never letting a stranger in, (or a friend), keeping doors locked, only answering the phone if it is a parent or on a parent’s “ok to answer” list.

· Having a password in place that only the people involved with the child would know is a great idea.

· Making it clear that kids are not to indicate to anyone at the door or on phone that an adult is NOT home at the time.

Is the child familiar with dialing 911 or how to get help?  Do they have a neighbor’s house to be able to go to as backup, relatives to call, etc.
Is the neighborhood safe? Basic understanding and rules is the key- are kids allowed to play outside, or do they have to stay inside until a parent comes home?
What about emergencies?

If the power were to go out, is there anything special needing attention?  Can a child get into the house with a key somehow instead of a garage door code that won’t work in that case, or do they have somewhere to go?  Is there a phone in the house that they can use if power is out (cell phone or a phone that will work w/o being power cord plugged in.

These are all very important factors when evaluating if your child is ready to be left alone. If you feel unsure, take them with you. It’s worth the extended shopping trip to keep them safe.

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