National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter
Jackie Reilly, M.S.
Youth Development Specialist
University of Nevada
When is a child old enough to stay home alone? If your program will close for a while over the holidays, parents may be asking themselves this question. In making this decision, parents must consider both the maturity level of the child and the conditions under which the child will be left alone. In some families, finances or a lack of other child care options may also play a part in their decision.
Some people think there is a specific age at which children are old enough to be home alone. Unfortunately, age does not always indicate maturity. There is no magic age at which all children are old enough to stay home alone. As child care professionals, we can help parents decide if self-care is right for their child. We can also help prepare children for the time when they will be on their own for short or long periods of time.
As parents make this decision, they should ask themselves these questions.
Here are some tips to help your child make this transition.
You can provide information about self-care to parents in many ways.
Also, keep parents informed about the self-care skills that
you're teaching in your program. Children should learn basic health,
safety, and problem-solving skills before they are ready to supervise
themselves. You can help children gain these skills through the
activities you offer.
Start by bringing snack or meal preparation into your program's activities. Teach children what foods should be part of nutritious snacks and meals. Then teach them how to prepare them. Also, teach food safety skills. Stress the importance of clean hands, surfaces, and utensils. Children should also know how to safely use equipment such as cheese graters, peelers, and microwaves.
Children also need basic first-aid skills. They should be able to recognize an emergency and know who to call. In some cases, children can handle the situation themselves. A child could easily put antiseptic and a band-aid on a paper cut without assistance. In other cases, they may need to call their parent or another adult for help. And, for very serious situations, they should be taught to immediately call a local emergency number such as "911."
Help children learn the problem-solving skills they will need to deal with the situations that may come up. Help them learn to make good decisions and to be responsible for their actions and choices. Make decision making a part of your program. Let children choose which activities they want to do. Build decision making into the projects that they choose. Find board games that require problem solving and decision making.
Get the children together and discuss situations that could happen to kids who are staying home alone. For example, how would you deal with a bully on the way home? What would you do if a neighbor who had never been in your house came to your door and asked to use your phone? What would you do if you heard a noise outside and saw someone breaking into the apartment next door? What would you do if some kids that you wanted as your friends said that to be their friend you had to steal something from the corner store? It is usually not possible to come up with one "right" answer. Talk about the many possible responses and help the kids decide what would work best in different situations. The 4-H program at your local Cooperative Extension Service office may have teaching materials for many of these skills.
We can - and probably should - teach self-care skills to school-age youth. Many of the skills are basic ones that help young people grow into confident, competent young people. We shouldn't see this as helping to put ourselves out of business. It's a normal process for young people to mature and move on to new challenges. We can also help parents by providing support and information for the difficult decisions they must make.
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