As a child of a working single parent, I well remember being 11 years old, trudging down our empty driveway in the afternoon as the school bus roared away. I’d take my house key from my book bag, unlock our kitchen door and hesitate a moment at the quietness of the house. Of course, things looked up considerably once I had a bowl of potato chips in hand and “Gilligan’s Island” on the tube. Homework and chores seemed miles away — until Mom called each afternoon with studying orders and her plea to empty the dishwasher. Today, as a working mom of children too young to be left alone, I fret about the day when they’ll be too old for childcare and will have their own house keys. Just like the majority of parents who work and leave their children on their own after school every day, I’ll be anxious about my children’s safety.
Is He Ready? How can a parent tell when a child is ready to stay home alone? According to the Westchester County District Attorney’s office, there is no law here that dictates at what age it is legal to leave a child home alone, and according to childcare experts, there is no specific age when children are ready because children mature at different rates. National statistics show that most latchkey children are 10 years or older. What is more important is whether your child feels comfortable being home alone and is levelheaded enough to handle an emergency. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies advises that when considering your child's maturity level and his ability to handle a variety of situations, you should be able to answer “yes” to most of the following questions before leaving him alone: • Has he handled well brief periods of being left alone? • Will he come straight home after school? • Can he manage simple jobs like fixing a snack and taking phone messages? • Is he physically able to unlock and lock the doors at home? • Can he solve small problems himself? • Does he know when and how to seek outside help? • Is he prepared to handle an accident or an emergency? •Will he follow the rules set for him and use his time productively? Before beginning self-care, have a heart-to-heart conversation with your child. Listen to her feelings and concerns. If she is apprehensive, proceed gradually with your arrangements. Starting self-care may not be advisable during a period of increased stress, such as a move to a new home, a divorce, or a death in the family.
You Can Help There are also ways to prepare children for the experience to ease their anxiety. The National Crime Prevention Council suggests that parents teach the following to “home alone” children: • To check in with you or a neighbor immediately after arriving home • How to call 911 or an operator • How to give directions to your home, in case of emergency • How to escape in case of fire • How to use the door and window locks, and the alarm system if you have one • Never to accept gifts or rides from people they don't know well • Never to let anyone into your home without asking your permission • Never to let a caller at the door or on the phone know that they're alone, but rather to say "Mom can't come to the phone (or door) right now" • Never to enter an empty house or apartment where something looks suspicious, i.e., a broken window, ripped screen, or opened door • To carry a house key with them in a safe place, i.e., inside a shirt pocket or sock (don't leave it under a mat or on a ledge outside the house) • To let you know about anything that frightens them or makes them feel uncomfortable
Practice Makes Perfect Think about building up hours gradually by leaving your child briefly to run an errand or arranging to arrive home 15 minutes later than usual from work. Ask your child if she felt comfortable and what she did with her time. Encourage him to tell you of any fears he may have had, no matter how trivial. With practice you will both be ready for him to spend longer periods of time alone and you can plan a regular schedule of self-care. You might also pose some real-life situations for children to gauge their reactions: What do you do when the dog gets over the fence and runs away? What about when your big sister isn’t home when expected? When your brother cuts his finger slicing an afterschool apple snack? What if the power goes out or the toilet overflows? And instruct them clearly about what you expect of them regarding regular communication. Parents can make good use of cell phones, pagers and even instant messaging over the Internet to stay in touch with their latchkey offspring. Check with them often so you won’t have visions of ongoing soccer games in your dining room or fears about your young sons glued to R-rated movies on cable. But don’t worry — most likely they’ll have unloaded the dishwasher, done their homework and be busy eating handfuls of greasy potato chips while catching the latest episode of “Hey, Arnold!”