Is your child old enough to be a latchkey kid? Don’t let convenience, peer pressure or saving money on a babysitter dictate this decision. When you’re trying to decide what age a child can stay home alone, maturity should be the deciding factor. Plenty of pediatricians and child development experts have used hard data and soft psychology to determine when it’s safe to let a child stay by themselves or babysit younger siblings. If you make this decision based on data instead of your gut you can also avoid being that helicopter parent. You know, the one who won’t let a 16-year-old look after her 10-year-old brother for a few hours? Here’s a checklist based on science. Answer each question honestly and you greatly reduce the risk of letting your child take on the responsibility too soon, or too late.
Is your child old enough?
The general rule of thumb is that a child who’s 10 or 11 can usually stay by themselves for an hour or two during the day. As for what age kids can stay home alone at night, that is usually age 12 or 13. But it’s important to realize that these are only very general guidelines. If you have more than one kid, you may find that each is ready at different ages. You might also need to adjust the age up or down if you expect your child to watch younger children as a babysitter. For some, not being the only person in the house makes being a latchkey kid far more comfortable. Others may be mature enough to stay by themselves but not to assure the safety and well-being of a younger sibling they argue with constantly.
Your child might look old enough to stay home alone and may have reached the average age when it’s cool. But that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. “You can have a 10- or 11-year-old who is responsible enough to stay home alone while you run down to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, or you could have a 16-year -old with a cognitive delay who isn’t responsible enough to be left alone,” Amy Davidson, deputy director of social services for Summit County Children Services explained in Northeast Ohio Parent.
Does your child take responsibility?
Staying home without adult supervision should happen only after your child is mature enough to take on responsibilities around the house. Make sure you get the order of events correct: First your child demonstrates a willingness to perform helpful and necessary tasks at home. Only then do you consider if she’s ready to supervise herself without an adult around. It’s not one of those situations where your child says, “If I can quit having a babysitter, I promise to start making my bed and feeding the goldfish.”
Observe your child’s behavior with a critical eye. “If he spills something, does he clean it up? If the teapot on the stove starts to whistle, does he turn it off or go get you?” are a few things to note, according to child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun in Woman’s Day. Other indicators of being responsible enough to become a latchkey child include taking on homework and chores without constant nagging from a parent.
Does your child follow the rules?
When you’re considering leaving your child at the house alone, you’ll need to make sure she’s able to pay attention to simple safety guidelines and any other household rules. The best way to gauge that is based on recent experience. Does your child willingly go to bed at the appointed hour and take pains not to let the family dog outside without a leash? A single broken rule shouldn’t disqualify your child from staying home alone, but you do need evidence that she’s generally willing to follow directions. Being home by yourself for the first time presents a kid with all kinds of temptations to break the family rules. While one extra bowl of ice cream before dinner won’t ruin your lives, not abiding by safety guidelines like not lighting the gas stove or going online to forbidden sites can pose a real danger. When you’re planning for your child to regularly stay by herself after school, it’s also important to realize that latchkey children have far more opportunity to experiment with drugs and alcohol than their peers. That makes it extra important to begin the process only after your child has demonstrated self-control and respect for rules.
Is your child comfortable with the idea?
You may think your son or daughter has reached the age kids stay home alone, but if the child disagrees, you may need to wait. Kids can feel insecure about noises when they’re by themselves, or simply not be confident in their ability to handle emergencies as they arise. If your child doesn’t greet the milestone enthusiastically, be sure to ask more open-ended questions to figure out what’s bothering him about the prospect. This is also a good time to do several short-interval trial runs so your kid can get familiar with the process.
And even if you had a positive response to all the questions about your child’s readiness, remember there’s a legal angle, too. Even the most well-meaning parent might run afoul of state laws that specify what age kids can stay home alone. Some policies involve very specific rules about when leaving children unsupervised might constitute neglect. To identify any child protection policies that could affect your choice to start letting your child be a latchkey child, use the state statute finder at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway. In so many ways, this is a “better safe than sorry” situation.