Staying Home Alone After School

David is begging his mother to let him come home alone after school this year. As a seventh-grade student, he says he is too old for the day care center and ready to stay home “like all of his friends.” While his mother believes David is responsible for his age, she still is leery about taking this big step toward independence.

For working parents, making the decision to let their children come home alone after school can be a difficult one. Parents often are torn between knowing if their child is mature enough to make the right decisions and fearing for the child’s safety while alone.

General guidelines for evaluating readiness

“The bottom line is whether the child is responsible and mature enough to stay at home alone,” says Dr. Teresa Salter, a Cary pediatrician. “The parent knows the child best, and only they can make the decision.”

Before allowing your child to stay at home alone after school, parents should decide if they feel their child is able to follow directions and solve problems on his or her own. Parents also need to establish strict guidelines and be confident that the child will follow the rules

For Lynn Wright, a Durham mother who works outside of the home, the decision to let her daughter come home alone after school was a tough one. While she trusted her daughter, Wright worried about her safety walking home and coming into an empty house.

“I am fortunate that my next-door neighbor is a good friend and is a stay-at-home mom,” Wright says. “I felt a lot better knowing that she was at home and could help my daughter at any time.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 17 percent of kindergarteners through eighth-graders spend time after school alone each week. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends adult supervision for children until about the ages of 11 or 12.

Individual considerations play a role

Often, older children are expected to watch younger siblings after school. Once the decision is made that the older child is mature enough to supervise sisters and brothers, Salter says it is important the younger children will listen to their older sibling.

“The parent does not want to be at work, having to referee fights between the siblings over the phone,” she says. “Often these arrangements do not work out because the younger children just aren’t going to listen to the older one.”

Parents also need to talk honestly with the child about how he or she may feel about being home alone. Despite their age, some children may be afraid to be left alone. Parents need to make sure the child has the maturity and initiative to want to assume that responsibility.

“Parents must work to prepare their children so that they feel comfortable in as many situations as possible when staying home alone,” says Stacey Sullivan, family team work coordinator for SAFEchild, a not-for-profit child abuse prevention agency in Raleigh. “Parents must establish guidelines for their children when they are by themselves at home.”

What kids need to know

According to the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, and SAFEchild, children who are home alone need to know the following:

* His or her address and phone number as well as those of the parents or guardians at work. Keep these written numbers in a convenient place.

* A trusted neighbor who is at home during the day and can be notified in case of an emergency. Leave a spare key with a neighbor in case keys are misplaced or lost. Do not hide an extra key near the entrance of your home — if it is accessible to you and your children, it is accessible to a thief.

* How to carry the key so it is hidden and secure. Your name and address should not be on the key.

* Not to walk or play alone on the way home and not to take shortcuts home.

* How to efficiently lock and unlock the doors and windows in your home. The child also should know how to work the alarm system if you have one.

* To immediately check in with you upon returning home to let you know he or she has arrived safely.

* Never to open the door to a stranger or let anyone unfamiliar to them know — either on the telephone or at the door — that they are without adult supervision. You may want to tell the child to let the answering machine screen all phone calls.

* First aid for minor injuries.

* Safety procedures in case of fire or injury and how and when to use 911.

Parents also may want to practice home-alone skills with the child, according to SAFEchild. When your child is home alone, check on the child’s skills by calling or knocking on the door. Parents also should provide a daily schedule of homework, chores and activities for the child to follow as well as written instructions about which appliances, if any, can be used.

Also establish careful guidelines about watching television, using the computer, talking on the telephone and inviting friends over when a parent is not home.

For Wright, the decision last school year to let her daughter stay at home alone after school was a good one. Both mother and daughter have been pleased with the new arrangement.

“We worked together to establish the guidelines and both of us felt good about them,” Wright says. “I think it has turned out to be a positive experience for both of us.”

Jane Paige is a writer who lives in the Triangle area.

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