A new school year often provides children with opportunities to try new experiences, from exploring new friendships to participating in clubs or extracurricular activities. For some children, it may also be an opportunity for them to spread their wings at home, perhaps taking on new chores or, for older and more responsible children, even staying home alone in the afternoon until parents return from work. This month, we will explore the questions of when, whether, and under which circumstances a child is ready to stay home alone.
A Note about the Law
North Carolina law is not specific about an age or when it is permissible for a parent to leave a child home alone. However, we believe that a child should be at least of middle school age before staying home alone for even short periods of time. Chronological age is only one determining factor in deciding whether a child is ready for unsupervised periods of time at home.
The 90-Percent Rule
At the Lucy Daniels Center, we often recommend that parents use what we call the “90-percent rule” when making decisions about camps, school placement, travel, playdates, parties, and other extracurricular activities. The rule is simple: present a challenge to your child only if you are at least 90-percent sure (i.e., pretty certain) that the experience will be successful. In the case of staying home alone, the 90-percent rule becomes more a 99-percent rule, meaning that you are almost absolutely certain that your child will not only feel successful, but will also be safe and smart in the face of unknowns.
Children build healthy self-esteem when they feel competent and successful. The most important source of this sense of competency comes from experiences and challenges that have been met and mastered. While you can’t really quantify certainty or uncertainty, we use the level of 90-percent as a way of representing near certainty with only a small chance of failure. Parental instinct and judgment play a big role here: if you are feeling unsure and perhaps even anxious about the experience, listening to those instincts is often the best way to go. In the case of a child spending time home alone, back-up plans such as having a neighbor available for emergencies or simply to check in help close the gap of uncertainty.
Independence Emerges Over Time
The answer to the question about whether a child is ready to stay home alone is going to be different for every child. As with all developmental milestones, the skills and emotional readiness necessary are built upon over time and don’t pop up overnight.
When your child is old enough and showing signs of being ready, begin with small steps, perhaps a short period of time when you run out to the grocery store for an item or two or when you take the dog for a walk around the block. As you extend the periods of time – and the distance you are from home – use extra supports such as a neighbor who can stop by at some point to check in on how things are going.
Rules, Conversations, and Action Plans
An important part of planning for a child to stay home alone includes coming up with clear guidelines, rules, and expectations for time spent home alone. Are there chores that should be completed? How much time can be spent on mobile devices or watching television? Can your child leave the house to play outside or in the neighborhood? Can other children come over while you are not home?
There are a few basic rules that are non-negotiable, such as never opening the door to a stranger and not cooking or using anything that involves fire. Make sure the rules that are most important to you are clearly set and non-negotiable, and ensure that your child is comfortable with an action plan in the case of an occurrence of something unplanned (e.g., what should he or she do if there is someone unexpected at the door? Is there a neighbor who can be contacted?).
Signs that a Child May Not Be Ready
If a child has difficulties in other areas of his or her development, taking on another level of autonomy may not be helpful or appropriate until the child has been able to work through those other areas. For example, if a child routinely has nightmares and struggles with feeling safe at night, a day or even afternoon home alone is probably not a challenge he or she is ready to take on. Similarly, if a child tends to struggle with impulse control and good judgment, proper supervision is the only way to ensure that child’s safety. Consider these factors, along with your instincts about your child’s developing problem-solving skills and resourcefulness, and you will know when it is the right time to help your child begin to take steps towards autonomy at home.