Some parents have heard the words, “Aw, Mom! I’m old enough to stay home by myself!”
This phrase is often heard when parents hire babysitters, or responsibilities call parents away from home. It can be tempting to leave children home alone for what seem to be good reasons — work and emergencies, for example. Some parents, though, leave children home alone because (shudder) they are not aware enough to provide the nurturance a child needs.
Tonya Rogillio is Deputy Director of the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, and one of the first things she will point out regarding the proper age to leave a child home is the fact that Mississippi has no law addressing a specific age.
“We receive calls about children being left home alone, and then we have to make all sorts of decisions about neglect, because there are no hard and fast laws defining it,” Rogillio said. “While some neglect is obvious, our decisions certainly bear on the cognitive ability and various capacities required for a child to take care of him or herself.”
Dr. Lindsay Wright, Assistant Professor of Child and Family Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi, agreed that “every child is different.”
She pointed out that some states do have laws that prohibit leaving children home alone until they have reached a specific age.
“This does not mean that you should actually leave your child alone at that age,” she advised. Again, even inthose states, it all depends on the particular child.
Now let’s move beyond legalities and talk about love, safety and logic. While some things are obvious when a parent is trying to figure out if it’s okay to leave a child home alone, Tonya Rogillio provided some key considerations:
- Will the child follow your directions?
- Does the child know the phone numbers of parents and friends from memory?
- Does the child know his or her address?
- Does the child have access to a phone?
- Are all dangerous objects (medicines, weapons, chemicals) out of reach and inaccessible?
- Has the child been taught how to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency? (Hopefully, a lesson has also been taught on the importance of NOT calling it otherwise)
- Does the child know what a fire alarm sounds like?
- Do you have an exit plan, and does the child know it? Has the child practiced it?
- If you have a two story house, do you have safety ladders upstairs, and is the child able to use them?
- Are there animals that need care, and if so, is the child able to care for them?
Parents should define the rules and help children practice them by role playing. For instance, ask things such as: “What do you do if someone comes to the door?”
Of course, it’s important to explain things calmly. No one needs to be overly worried or frightened, but children do need to be responsible enough and mature enough to understand important concepts and how to apply them.
Most authorities mentioned age 12 as the magic number to even start considering leaving a child home alone — and that was the minimum age.
So, parents, there’s a little food for thought for making the “home alone?” decision.
With a little creativity, you can even make a game out of learning about safety — have a safety scavenger hunt, and make learning about responsibility and safety a gradual and fun process.
May all of your parenting decisions be wise!
Elizabeth Phelps was raised on the Gulf Coast. She is a writer, speaker, teacher and youth program facilitator. She has won awards for writing and inspirational youth programming using the arts.