Deciding When Children Can Stay Home Alone
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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 stay home alone in the afternoon until parents return from work. This month, we will explore 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 a child should at least be of middle school age before staying home alone for even short periods of time. Chronological age is only one factor in determining 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 the experience will be successful. In the case of staying home alone, the 90 percent rule becomes more of a 99 percent rule, meaning you should be almost certain that your child will not only feel successful, but will also feel safe and smart in the face of unknowns.
Why 90 Percent?
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 they have met and mastered. While you can’t really quantify certainty or uncertainty, we feel 90 percent represents near certainty with only a small chance of failure. Parental instinct and judgment play a big role here. If you feel unsure or anxious about the experience, listen to your instincts.
Independence Emerges Over Time
When your child is old enough and shows signs of being ready, begin with small steps — perhaps a short period of time when you run out to the grocery store or take the dog for a walk around the block. As you extend the time periods — and your distance from home — use supports such as a neighbor who can stop by to check in and see 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 rules and expectations. Are there chores to be completed? How much time can your child spend on mobile devices or watching TV? Can your child leave the house to play outside or somewhere in the neighborhood? Can other children come over?
There are a few basic, non-negotiable rules, such as never opening the door to a stranger, and never cooking or doing anything that involves fire. Make an action plan in the case of an unplanned occurrence (such as someone unexpectedly knocking on the door).
Signs a Child May Not Be Ready
If a child has difficulties in other areas of development, taking on another level of autonomy may not be helpful or appropriate until the child can work through those areas. For example, if a child routinely has nightmares and struggles with feeling safe at night, an afternoon home alone is probably not a challenge he or she will be ready to take on. Similarly, if a child struggles with impulse control or 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 your child is ready to take steps towards autonomy at home.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.