Home Alone – A Guide to Help Kids Succeed
By Patricia Bates, Family Life Educator, Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center
All kids eventually get to the point where they will stay home alone. Your child indignantly tells you, “I’m too old for daycare!” or claims, “All the kids at the after school program are kindergarteners.” Maybe you would like to save the money you are spending on child care. Parents often ask, how do I know when my child is ready?
Maturity is the key – but sometimes hard to gauge.
Determining Maturity Level
Consider these questions when you’re wondering about the level of maturity your child might have:
- Does your child make good decisions almost all the time?
- Can your child problem solve? When a new situation arises, can he/she think the problem through and come up with a logical, safe and realistic solution?
- How does your child respond to stress?
- How does your child react in an emergency?
- Is your child comfortable being alone?
If your child has these reactions to everyday situations, he or she may not be ready. For instance, if you asked your child what to do if someone threatened them, and your child wants to use karate as a solution, they may not be thinking realistically enough to be alone.
Thinking Things Through Guide
Drill down on the details before you make a decision. It’ll help to answer these questions:
- How long and at what time of the day will the child be alone?
- Will he or she be responsible for siblings?
- Is the neighborhood safe?
- Are parents reachable by phone at all times?
- Is there a backup person your child can call, like a grandparent, neighbor or the parent of a child’s friend?
- Are attractive risks in the house like alcohol, firearms, matches and prescription drugs locked away?
Start slowly when you begin allowing your child to be home alone. Leave your child in charge or on their own while you shop or run errands for an hour or so and see how they handle this.
Teach Key Lessons Before Starting
Have your child demonstrate some basic skills that will ease your worries as well as equip them for various situations. Make sure they know:
- How to lock and unlock the door
- Basic personal safety: answering the phone or door, fire safety, severe weather safety, poison prevention
- Basic first aid and when to call 911
- How to use the furnace, air conditioner, microwave and stove
- Mom and dad’s work phone numbers – by heart – even if they are programmed into a cell phone
Kids Love Structure
A foundation plan on what is allowed and what is not is a key ingredient for your child’s safety, so go over the rules for things like:
- Leaving the house
- Having friends over
- Eating and cooking
- Using screens, TV and technology
- Chores and homework
- Activities that are allowed
Technology, Safety and Practice
There are many security systems that allow parents to see their child as he or she arrives home. You can add apps to your child’s cell phone with emergency numbers, severe weather alerts, and how to do the Heimlich maneuver for choking. Do some research to find ways to use technology to keep kids safest.
It’s also a good idea to practice situations that may arise when your child is alone. Role playing gives kids practice thinking through a situation and finding a safe and logical solution. One family writes scenarios on strips of paper and puts them in a jar on the kitchen table.
Each night during supper, they choose one and discuss different ways of handling it.
Here are some examples:
- The dog eats a bag of candy bars.
- You are making toast and the toast burns, causing the smoke alarms to go off.
- Your two best friends come home with you after school. They have cigarettes.
- You are watching TV and the program is interrupted with a tornado watch.
- Someone is at the door and he says he is here to check the furnace.
- You arrive home after school, and the front door is open.
Avera offers a “Home Alone” class for children ages 10-13, where they can learn important skills needed to be home on their own. Classes are offered in spring and summer. You can register for upcoming classes. Your child’s safety is always your primary concern. Take the time to educate them before they take this exciting step toward independence.