WHEN IS IT OK TO LEAVE CHILDREN UNATTENDED?
One question frequently asked by parents is “How old should a child be before he can be left home alone?” Often, I’m asked this question when holidays are coming up and parents will be at work, but children won’t be in school. The question is asked even more frequently as summer vacation approaches.
Of course, there is no simple
one-size-fits-all answer. This decision is complicated
because much depends upon the individual child and also
family dynamics. A parent has to consider not only
whether his or her particular child is “old enough,” but
is ready enough to be left home alone. The issue becomes
more complicated if there are younger siblings. Is the
oldest child ready to stay home alone and to be “in
charge of” the younger children?
Parents have knowledge about how the child handles responsibility, follows directions, uses good judgment, and feels about being alone. It’s really up to a parent to figure out whether a child is actually ready to be left home alone and how much responsibility the child is ready to assume. Better yet, in two-parent homes, both parents should consider the readiness issue and make the decision after careful examination and discussion. It’s important, as well to ask the child how he or she feels about staying home alone and/or about being left in charge of younger siblings.
Here are some questions for parents and children to discuss and answer when making a decision whether a child is ready to stay home alone:
Parents can use the checklist below as a tool to help them consider whether it is appropriate for their children to be left home alone. This checklist is only a guide and shouldn’t be used as the deciding factor. It’s a good idea to have each parent and the child complete the checklist independently. How does each parent rate the readiness of the child? Does the child rate himself or herself as ready? What important differences are noted between the answers given by the parents and the child? What other important factors (such as younger siblings and family dynamics) should be considered?
Is the child capable enough to handle the responsibilities of being home alone?
The assessment doesn't stop there. Ask yourself: Is my child mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being home alone? You can use this checklist to help you. Circle the word that best describes how your child does on each of the following
Evaluating whether this child should be left home alone
After you, your co-parent and your child has answered the above questions, take a look at the answers. If someone answered "no," or "hardly ever" or “never” to quite a few questions, this may signal a lack of readiness for this child to be left home alone.
Each factor needs to be carefully weighed. Perhaps the child needs more information, some training in self-care skills or a class in first-aid to become ready to stay home alone. However, perhaps an alternative care situation is needed instead of leaving the child home alone. Some of the problem areas identified by using the checklist may indicate minor problems that can be easily corrected. On the other hand, responses to the checklist may suggest the child is not yet ready to stay alone. Much will depend upon the environment where the child (or children) will be left home alone. For instance, a mature child who cannot reach an adult by phone, but who lives in a relatively safe neighborhood where the child can easily reach an 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.
Is that the end of the analysis?
No. Even if you answered "yes" or at
least "most of the time" to all the questions and even
if the child is ready, it may not be wise to leave
children home alone. Other factors are important in
making this decision. You should consider whether the
amount of time the child is alone may be too long,
whether staying home alone during the day or during the
night may pose problems, whether the child must also be
responsible for meals and can prepare them, and also
whether your neighborhood is unsafe.
The checklist above may be a helpful
tool for parents to use to determine readiness. Bear in
mind, however, that this list should be used only as a
guide, NOT as the deciding factor. Your family may have
specific factors that are not addressed above, such as
learning disabilities or physical handicaps that will
have to be factored in when deciding whether you should
leave your child alone. You might decide to put your
checklists in a file so that you can re-evaluate the
situation in another 6 months or year. That will help
you decide whether there has been a sufficient
maturation in your child that changes your mind about
leaving him or her home alone.
Jeanne M. Hannah, a family lawyer located in Traverse City, Michigan, represents clients in Grand Traverse County, Benzie County, Leelanau County, Kalkaska County, Antrim County, Emmet County, and other selected counties throughout Michigan. Copyright © 2005 [Jeanne M. Hannah]. All rights reserved. Revised: 04/11/09
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