Once you decide that it's safe to leave your children home alone, you should talk to them about safety. For example, how to answer the phone without indicating they are alone.
From eNews, May 29, 2008
Summer is almost here, and if you're the parent of a child ages 9 to 12, you can bet this question is also coming: "Why can't I stay home by myself this summer?" The transition to having your child stay home alone is a big step for every family, says Kathleen Olson, family relations specialist with University of Minnesota Extension. According to the U.S. Census, about 7 million of the nation's 38 million children ages 5 to 14 are left home alone regularly. Among the report's key findings: 600,000 five- to eight-year-olds fend for themselves and 3.4 million children are under the care of siblings. The national average "home alone" time is six hours per week, and higher-income parents are more likely to leave kids unsupervised. Statistics also indicate that unsupervised kids are at greater risk of accident and of harm by strangers, siblings, or friends; and are more apt to commit crimes than those under the care of an adult. "Experts strongly recommend that you not leave children under 10 at home alone for any extended period of time," says Olson. "You can check with your local Child Protection Agency to find out age guidelines for children being left alone." Once parents have decided that it's safe to leave their children home alone, they should talk to them about safety issues, Olson says. She recommends parents remind children they should never open the door for anyone. A discussion about the child's boundaries should also take place, she says. "Can she play outside or visit the neighbors?" Olson says. "Can he ride his bike, go to the playground, and visit friends?" Olson says it's also essential to teach children how to answer the phone and take messages without indicating they are alone. Or, have them use caller ID or an answering machine to screen calls. A plan of action is important in case something goes wrong, she says. Parents should post emergency telephone numbers, their work and/or cell phone numbers, and numbers of neighbors or relatives who could help if needed. "Have a backup plan if you can't be reached," she says. "And remember to discuss rules children need to follow if they are allowed to stay home alone." According to Olson, children are less likely to break rules if they are involved in setting them up. She says to go over rules periodically, and post them in a prominent place. When parents are away, they should call home at unpredictable times to see how the children are doing and let them know they will be checked on, she says. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, being trusted to stay home alone can be a positive experience for a child who is mature and well prepared. It can boost the child's confidence and promote independence and responsibility.
"Staying home alone is a big responsibility for children," says Olson. "It's important for parents to give them the skills they need to be safe and to feel comfortable."
For more tips, see "Leaving Your Child Home Alone". (PDF)
Kathleen Olson is a family relations specialist and professor with University of Minnesota Extension.