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Is it time for your kids to stay home alone?

by Alison Crane, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Garland County Extension Service | August 21, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

One of the hardest things I have done as a parent was the first time, I drove away from my house knowing my kids were home alone. Even though I would not be gone long, and I had been training them for that day since they were small, there was incredible indecision over whether I had done enough to prepare them to stay home alone.

The irony is that as a kid, I absolutely loved to stay home or in the car by myself. I liked the quiet and enjoyed being responsible for myself even if for just a few minutes. But the world I grew up in is different from the world of today, at least it is in my mind. As a parent, you may be trying to help your child take some very necessary steps toward independence but also experiencing some anxiety over the when and how long.

Because every child is different, there are no hard-fast rules about what age is appropriate for leaving your child home alone. Some states may have laws regarding when you may legally leave your children alone, but Arkansas does not have a legal limit on what age a child may be left alone. If something should happen, it would be up to the local police whether to file charges. When to leave your child unattended is up to the parent to decide, however, a toddler or infant should never be left alone even for a few minutes.

Many schools set a limit at age 9 for when a child can get off a bus without a parent present and that might be a good starting point for your family when considering what age to start giving your child opportunities to stay unaccompanied. Assessing whether your child is ready to stay home alone will depend some on his or her age but mostly on maturity and how comfortable your child feels about staying home without you.

When making this important decision, ask yourself the following questions:

• How long do plan to leave your child alone? And at what time of day?

• Are there neighbors nearby who could be called on in an emergency?

• Is your child comfortable staying home alone?

• Can your child read well enough to follow written instructions?

• Can your child open and close windows, lock and unlock doors, and operate small appliances (toaster, microwave)?

• Can your child reliably use the telephone, and do you have one available for them to use (either landline, cell, or tablet)?

• Does your child have the maturity to behave calmly in a crisis?

• Does your child understand plans for emergencies such as fire or storms?

• Would your child reliably follow house rules such as staying inside or in the yard?

If you can not comfortably answer these questions, your child is probably not ready to stay home alone. However, these questions can be your starting point for preparing them to stay home in the future.

Talking to your child about staying home alone will help you find out what they are feeling. Is your child excited about being home alone? If they have some fear or anxiety about being alone, that can impact their decision-making abilities. Keep in mind that while one child may be fine with staying home by themselves, another might not be. Sibling dynamics can also play a role in how comfortable they feel without you.

To begin preparing your child, ask what they would do if a fire should start. Talk about what to do during a storm or if someone should come to the door. Consider role-playing good responses to different emergencies to help them gain confidence and practice needed skills.

If you decide to leave your child at home be careful not to overdo it with too much time at home alone. Typically, teens can be home alone all day but children under 12 or 13 need a balance with other activities and interactions with peers. Make sure you have regular check-ins to touch base not just making sure they are okay at the moment, but to check how being alone makes them feel.

To receive a copy of the handbook, "Home Alone Handbook: Is Your Child Ready?", contact the Garland County Extension office at 236 Woodbine St., or email [email protected]. Follow our Facebook page @garlandcountyextension for our upcoming parenting programs.

Alison Crane is a family and consumer science agent with the Garland County Extension Service.

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