This is part 3 in a series that recognizes April as Child Abuse Prevention Month.
In my work as a child abuse prevention educator, I found many parents and caregivers had no idea that depending on the state in which you live there were laws, guidelines, or no guidelines at all about leaving children home alone, home with other children, or even overnight by themselves. The three states that do have laws (Illinois, 14 years old; Maryland, 8 years old; and Oregon, 10 years old) even run a wide age range.
In states where there are/are not guidelines (keep in mind that in California there are no guidelines), you could experience a visit from Child Protective Services if someone were to call them, concerned that your child was too young to be left home alone. They could find that you were neglecting your child due to inadequate supervision. It doesn’t mean they would take your child from you, but they may require you to attend parenting classes, create a safety plan, or some other intervention.
In order to best protect your child and make sure that they are ready to be left home alone, consider the following:
Is my child ready?
Age is just a number. Are they mature enough to handle and abide by the rules you establish? It’s important to ask them, too. You may think they are ready, but they may be anxious with the thought of being left home alone.
In case of an emergency.
Does your child know their address? Cross streets? Do they know your phone number? What if they can’t get a hold of you—do they have a backup number to call? What about a neighbor—is there someone they feel safe going to that lives close by?
Make sure that your family has an escape plan in place and that it has been practiced. In case of a fire, earthquake, or other natural disaster your child needs to know what to do and how to stay safe. You should have a family meeting place for some of these emergencies and that would be your first place to look when you get back home.
What are the ground rules?
Are they competent in the kitchen, or should you keep it limited to the microwave while you are out? Answer the door or just let someone knock? Friends can come over or should stay away? And always remind your child not to tell anyone they are home alone.
What about younger siblings? Babysitting gigs?
Taking care of younger siblings or having a babysitting job adds a whole other level of consideration. Your child needs to be able to demonstrate even more responsibility in these instances. Consider enrolling them in babysitter bootcamp or first aid/CPR class to take some of the worry out of the situation.
When you and your child feel that you are ready, do a trial run. Simply go to the grocery store and leave them home alone to get the feel of it. Eventually, increase the time you are away and vary the circumstances (during the day, at night, weekend, during mealtime). And be sure to call in and check on them. Being able to leave your child home alone and not hire a babysitter is a milestone for you and your child. Just think of it—you can have date nights again!
Find more resources at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/homealone.pdf