Once again, budget cuts leave families -- and children -- high and dry.
Question: I know all children mature differently, but at what age can a child be left home alone? Our local school has 11- to 14-year-olds dismissed very early in the afternoon. There are no after-school programs for supervision. I question if an 11-year-old can really come home by himself after school. What do you think?
From: Puggle, Woburn
The child development experts are on your side: 11 tends to be the youngest age at which professionals say it's OK to leave a child home alone, but there are many factors to consider before you do, and the decision for each individual child depends on maturity, not chronology, as you note.
Here's why: Research shows that in emergencies, no matter how well they are coached, children younger than 11 (and many 11- and, indeed, 12-year-olds) are too frightened to remember what they've learned.
And guess what? Most parents are too chicken to test out whether a child will be too frightened in the event of an emergency. One way to test it out is to pose "what-if" questions. You know, "What would you do if you smelled smoke?" Unfortunately, we tend to avoid that kind of conversation because we don't want to frighten them.
Hello!? If your child is frightened in the abstract, isn't that something you need to know?
If you can coach him on what to do in emergencies, and he's not frightened in the abstract, that's a sign of readiness. Any discussion you have with him will be empowering, not scary. (If he is frightened by the abstract, drop the question. You have your answer -- he can't be home alone -- and you can come back to it in six months.)
Part of the problem is that it's around age 11 when kids begin to say, "I can stay home by myself!" Usually, they are talking about 15 or 20 minutes of being alone: when you want to drag them along on a quick run to the grocery for milk, or to drop off a younger sib at a bday party.
Just the fact that she tells you, "I can be home alone," is a developmental milestone. Here's my advice: Consider her statement your starting point for a discussion, not the deciding factor. Also consider:
* What's her track record for demonstrating responsible behavior? One psychologist who studies latch-key kids once told me a story of a child home alone who called 9-1-1 because he couldn't find his shoes. You need to know that a child will not be too timid to call the police, but also be able to identify a real emergency. Play a game with him: Throw out a bunch of "is this a real emergency?" questions.
* Is she physically strong and well-coordinated? This same psychologist was sure her own 10-year-old daughter was until she asked her to open a storm window and she couldn't. It prompted her to change her mind. "It made me realize how much you need to think about what skills might get called upon in an emergency," the psychologist told me.
* Try these what-if questions out on your child: What would you do if you heard a strange noise? If you came home and the front door was ajar? If someone you don't know rings the doorbell? If you smell smoke? If you need to reach me and can't?
Without after-school programs, your options are tricky; presumably you will have to pay for an after-school activity, perhaps at the Y, Boys or Girls Club, or something similar. But this will likely be a one-, or at most two-year, expense, and there are other options to consider -- for instance, grouping up with one or two other working moms/dads and trading off days when you can work at home for the afternoon. Also don't dismiss the possibility of pressuring the school to provide some programming.
Two other thoughts:
1) if you child flunks your "what-if" test and you scrub the idea of leaving her alone, re-evaluate every few months. By 12, most children are ready to take care of themselves for limited periods of time and will feel babied if you don't give them the opportunity. Start off in small doses, though; 15-minute periods, then 30-mins, etc.
2) If your child does seem mature enough to be alone, the rule of thumb is for no more than two hours in one stretch, and no more than five hours per week. More than that and a child can feel lonely and sad.
P.S. There's a whole section on "Home Alone" in my book.
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