National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter
Ann Hansen, M.Ed.
Extension Home Economics
South Dakota State University
The movie “Home Alone” caught the attention of many people. Producers capitalized on humor surrounding the adventures of a child left home alone by mistake. Although the parents in this movie did not intend to leave their child, many parents must make decisions regarding their child's ability to be home alone. The decision to do so is complicated and depends upon the individual child.
As a child care provider, a parent may ask you about a child's readiness to stay by him or herself. There is no single answer to this question, no magical age or single indicator that ensures a child is ready to stay at home alone (or with younger siblings). Some states have made laws that specify an age (e.g., 10 years) below which it is illegal to leave children alone. Other states do not set a specific age, but rather, consider the maturity level of the child. Be sure to check with your state child welfare agency to learn about the regulations in your state.
As a child care provider, you have knowledge about how the child handles responsibility, follows directions, uses good judgment, and feels about being alone. The provided checklist may be a helpful tool for parents to use to determine readiness. This list should be used only as a guide, NOT as the deciding factor. Share the checklist with parents. Providing parents with your own assessment of the child's readiness may also be helpful.
A child's readiness for being home alone may also be measured by asking the child some of these same questions. Compare adult and child answers. Are there differences in how the situation is viewed? Discuss the differences. Review answers later as the child matures.
SELF-CARE READINESS CHECKLIST
The checklist is provided as a tool to help parents consider the appropriateness of self-care for their children. It should be used as a guide only, NOT as the deciding factor. Parent and child should complete the checklist independently. Are there differences in how the situation is viewed? Discuss the differences. Use this tool as one factor in making your decision.
Yes or No – The child can give his or her address and directions to home.
Yes or No – The child can repeat and dial the home phone number.
Yes or No – The child can explain how to handle first aid for cuts and scrapes, burns, nosebleeds, poisonings, bites, choking, and eye injuries.
Yes or No – The child knows where to locate first aid supplies kept in the home.
Yes or No – The child can identify two escape routes from the home in case of fire.
Yes or No – The child can handle telephone calls correctly.
Yes or No – The child has demonstrated correct procedures for handling strangers at the door.
Yes or No – The child knows how to reach parents or other responsible adults by phone.
Yes or No – The child can name two adults to contact in case of an emergency.
Yes or No – The child will tell parents or child care providers about daily events without prompting.
Yes or No – The child can locate a safe place to seek shelter during a storm.
Yes or No – The child can name five household rules and identify which ones were followed the previous week.
Yes or No – The child can give an example of a time when they had to figure out and decide what was the right thing to do, without adult input.
Yes or No – The child feels safe when alone and fears (such as darkness) or nightmares are minimal when adults are not around.
Yes or No – The child has indicated an interest or willingness to stay on his or her own.
Yes or No – If other children will be present, the children are willing to stay alone with each other and fighting is at a tolerable level.
Respond (hardly ever, sometimes, often, most of the time, or always) to the following statements describing the child.
completes household chores
arrives at school on time
arrives home on time
lets parent/provider know where he or she is going before leaving
ask for help when problems arise
Once you or a child's parent completes the checklist, examine the answers. If you answered “no” or “less than often” to any question, it may signal a need for information, training in self-care skills, or an alternative care situation if a parent or child care provider is to be away. Certain combinations of “no” and “sometimes” may indicate minor problems and can be easily corrected. Other combinations of “no” and “hardly ever” may suggest the child is not yet ready to stay alone. For instance, a mature child who cannot reach an adult by phone, but who lives in a relatively safe neighborhood with an easily reached emergency contact person is at less risk than a child who will not complete tasks, fights often with siblings, and will not talk about concerns. If you answered “yes” or at least “most of the time” to all the questions, the child may be ready to be home alone. But even if the child is ready, self-care may not be wise. For example, the amount of time the child is alone may be too long, or your neighborhood may be unsafe.
After the child has gained the skills and knowledge needed to stay alone, plan a trial period of self-care in order to see how the child adjusts to the situation. Initially, you may want to present it as a temporary arrangement so that the child knows he or she can choose not to continue if it is uncomfortable staying alone. This will also allow parents to end the arrangement more easily if they feel the child is unable to handle the situation. Children who are mentally and emotionally ready to stay alone, who have been taught the skills and knowledge needed to deal with the new responsibility, who can talk easily with their parents about fears or concerns that may arise, can gain much from the opportunity to care for themselves.
Brown, J. E., & Grossman, S. (1986, May). Children in self care: The latchkey child. *Extension Bulletin E* – 1972. Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Labensohn, D., Hans, C., & Abbott, B. (1989). *On My Own and OK*. Iowa State University Extension.
Urban, R. (1992, March). On your own in rural America. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, Sauders County.
Todd, C. *Preparing Your Child To Stay Alone*. North Central Regional Extension Publication No. 248. Urbana: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.