The school year's starting and nothing's changed: You're working parents and your child will be heading home after school to let herself in, get a snack and hopefully do homework, right? Or not. Often the only solution to the several-hour gap after school and before Mom or Dad gets home remains a gray area filled with an enormous amount of trust. And plenty of kids are left alone on school day afternoons.
According to nonprofit Afterschool Alliance research, more than 11 million kids — 20 percent — are left home alone after school in the U.S. every weekday. And while Safe Kids Worldwide says generally children are cognitively ready to be home alone starting at age 12 or 13, sometimes age is not the best indicator of a child's maturity level. Parents have to make the call about their kids' readiness themselves. In Tennessee, there is no legal age for children to stay home alone, however, according to tncourts.gov, "young children under age 10 should not be left without supervision at any time," and, "in most cases, older teenage children may be left alone for short periods of time."
"It stresses me out," says Lynn Holbrook, a Nashville attorney (whose name has been changed for privacy) with a 12-year-old son, Kyle (whose name has also been changed). "But I think he's very mature and he knows how to reach me. Plus, we have good neighbors, so that eases my mind a great deal in the event that something could come up," Holbrook adds.
And a lot can "come up" without adult supervision: someone may unexpectedly solicit your home; a pet may get loose; friends may come over without your knowledge; something may get burned on the stove and so forth.
The "very mature" part is the key, and it's also very subjective as kids develop at different rates and risks increase if other children are in the home. Safe Kids says it's important to evaluate your kids on a one-by-one basis and to take your cues from them. Many children are able to let you know when they are ready; they don't flinch at the idea, they have little anxiety about it, and they may suggest it. They may feel that they have a grasp on certain skills they need in order to handle what may arise.
If you're thinking about leaving your child home alone, first evaluate her readiness. If you're satisfied that she's ready, next put down clear ground rules together and finish up with scenario-type questions.
HOME ALONE READINESS
1. Safety: If your child needed to leave the house for an emergency, would she be safe? Is there a friend or neighbor nearby who can offer help in an emergency?
2. Responsibility: Can your child watch younger siblings, unpack groceries, do her own laundry? Is she able to do day-to-day activities without constant reminders? Will she walk outside and get locked out of the house? If kids aren’t responsible with you around, they probably won’t be responsible without you.
3. Cognitive readiness: Would your child keep a level head if things didn’t go as planned? For example, if she cut her finger slicing an apple, would she know how to handle it? Would she be able to, in a moment of distress, be able to access resources available to her?
4. Emotional readiness: Will she spend the entire 120 minutes you’re away watching agreed-upon television? You need to know your child well enough to know whether or not she will handle the situation maturely.
HOME ALONE GROUND RULES
• Set agreements about getting homework done.
• Set agreements about having friends over and for how long.
• Set agreements about the time you will check in with each other.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR CHILD
• What will you do if someone rings the doorbell?
• What will you do if you smell something funny?
• Who will you call if you feel scared in the event of a storm or tornado warning?
• Do you know who to call in an emergency?
Leaving your child or children home alone is always going to be a family decision; just be sure to do your homework for the best results. If you are not satisfied that your child should be home alone, consider an after-school activity that she can carpool to with a friend.