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The Informed Parent

Home Alone: What Age Are Children Ready?

Every parent, at some point, must decide if and when their child is responsible enough to stay home alone for a short period of time. Most often the reason is that both parents need to work. Child care is costly and family members often live too far away to help. If the children are too young staying home alone, there may be negative consequences both legally and health-wise.

Legal Considerations

Parents should find out about their state and local laws regarding unsupervised children. In one state it is illegal to leave a child under 14 home alone. In another it is okay to leave a child unsupervised after they turn 8 years old. In California there is no specific age stated in the law. Therefore, parents must follow the guidelines below to make a responsible decision. In most cases, a child under 12 is not ready to stay home alone.

Understanding Maturity

Parents must consider their child’s development. The brain continues to develop advanced functions such as planning, memory and impulse control into the late teens and 20’s. This maturation of the brain allows a child to evaluate a problem and use appropriate decision-making skills to resolve the problem. Every child develops at a different rate. Parents must watch for these decision-making skills in every day situations, and even practice these skills with role playing at home.

Health Considerations

Children left at home unsupervised are more likely to feel alone, scared, or bored. In children under 14 years old, more injuries occur from falls, burns (from house fires), and poisonings if left unsupervised. Children left home alone are more likely to experiment with risky activities such as smoking, alcohol, and drugs. However, if a child is left unsupervised at the appropriate age, they often develop a better sense  of responsibility and independence.

Questions To Help Parents Decide

  1. What are the local laws? Is it legal to leave your child home alone?
  2. How has your child responded to stressful or emergency situations in the past?
  3. Does your child make responsible decisions?
  4. What activities do you want your child to participate in while alone?
  5. What dangerous activities might your child become involved in?
  6. Is your child comfortable staying home alone?
  7. Do you feel comfortable leaving your child home alone?
  8. Do you have house rules and does your child understand them? (Can your child have friends over? Is he allowed to answer the door? What activities are off-limits? Is there homework or chores to do?)
  9. Does your child know how to contact a parent, other adult, and emergency services?
  10. Does your child know what to do in case of accident, fire, or intruder?
  11. Has your child successfully completed a ”trial run” of being home alone?

Resources: Consultant for Pediatricians: May 2010

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