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Many young teens and pre-teens stay home alone after school. This is not a new situation. Mothers have worked outside the home for decades. 

Parents are concerned but feel they have few alternatives. Middle school kids are too old for babysitters, and although most communities have after-school programs and community centers, some are too costly, and many teens do not want to participate in an organized program after a long day at school. 

Still, preparation is critical and there are many things to consider if you are thinking about allowing your child to remain home alone after school.

How old is old enough? 

How old should your youngster be before he or she is allowed to stay home alone? It depends more on the child's level of maturity than his chronological age. Most children age 12 to 16 are capable of cognitive problem solving and decision-making.

You will have to assess your child's level of readiness and decide if he or she is capable of self-care. For example, has the child shown maturity and responsibility in other ways? How are her grades? Does she generally follow the rules you have set?

State Laws

As a general rule of thumb, a school-age child may be left home alone if she has the ability to react safely in an emergency, but in some states, it is an offense to leave a child under a specific age alone. Be sure to check out the laws in your state regarding this issue.

Younger siblings

Another controversial issue is that of leaving younger siblings in the care of teens. It's okay for teens to watch younger siblings, as long as they're able to assume the responsibility.

Your neighborhood

Is your neighborhood generally safe and relatively crime-free? Is there a responsible adult available in case of an emergency?

Long-term effects

The impact being home alone has on the child depends on many variables, and especially on the child in question. If they are truly developmentally ready for the experience, then it seems logical to me that the child's sense of independence might be enhanced. If they are not yet ready or if they have a bad experience being left alone, though, it could have the opposite effect. 

As for feelings of security, if the child knows procedures they should follow when answering the phone, answering the door, using the Internet safely, and using the telephone in times of emergency, they may be able to make it through the experience feeling secure. It's a hard call that should be based on a child-by-child basis.

Home Safety

Be sure your smoke alarms work, have fire extinguishers readily available and ensure your kids know how to use them. If possible, install a caller ID or telephone answering machine so your child can easily identify callers. 

Instruct your child not to let anyone know he or she is home alone. Your teen should be taught to never open the door to a stranger. If possible, install a peephole, so your child can identify the person without opening the door.

The Internet

The Internet provides our children with access to a world of knowledge we couldn't even dream of when we were kids, but children must be monitored. Since parents cannot be with their children all the time, strong rules are an extra. It is necessary to outline rules for Internet surfing. If possible, get a block to keep your child from accessing adult sites on the Internet. Bookmark the sites your child is allowed to surf.

If you check the history when your child signs off, you can see where he has been and you'll be able to verify that he or she is following the rules.

Emergency Plan

Develop an emergency plan and role-play various situations so that your child will be prepared to react quickly and correctly in an emergency. Review with children what to do in case they are home alone in an emergency. Write emergency phone numbers in a conspicuous place. Also post your work number and numbers of stay-at-home neighbors that you trust. Make sure your street address number is large and well-lit so emergency personnel can find your home quickly.

Disaster Preparations

Natural and man-made disasters sometimes occur and it is important for children to know what to do in case it is necessary to evacuate or remain indoors due to a disaster.

Your child needs to know who to contact if a disaster occurs that requires evacuation. She needs to know how to tune in to emergency broadcasting information and who to contact to get instructions and directions. She should be instructed not to use 911 as a general inquiry line because 911 will be jammed in a time of disaster. Maintain a family disaster supply kit with essentials you will need in an emergency. Make a list of local emergency numbers, work numbers, doctors' numbers and family numbers. Keep a copy by the phone and in each family member's wallet.

Consistent Rules

Tell your child what the rules are concerning use of the telephone and Internet, and for friends and visitors coming to the house. Prepare your child in advance for any eventualities that might arise. Develop an emergency plan and role-play various situations so that your child will be prepared to react quickly and correctly in an emergency.

You know your child

You will know when she is mature enough to stay home alone. The decision to leave a child at home alone should depend on the general safety of the neighborhood, the child's level or readiness and the ability of the parents to monitor in some way.


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