Leaving Children Home Alone Safely

One of the most difficult decisions every parent must make is to decide when to let their child stay home alone. Whether it is to run a quick errand or to cover an intermittent period of time between the end of the school day and parent’s work day, it is essential to assure each child has the skills necessary to safely be home alone.

Unfortunately, there is no magic answer. A combination of factors such as age, maturity, and knowledge of expectations and safety skills must be considered to assess each child’s readiness.

As the school year is quickly coming to an end and summer fast approaching, Marion County Children Services is sharing some guidelines for parents who may be wrestling with this issue.

The Ohio Revised Code does not specify an age for leaving a child alone. The law does specify, however, that a parent cannot “violate a duty of care”. Proper and adequate supervision of a child is a “duty of care,” and regardless of a child’s age, parents will generally be the ones held accountable and liable if something were to happen or go wrong while the child is alone.

It is generally accepted that no child younger than eight should be left alone and no child younger than eleven should babysit, however, age is far from the only factor which should be considered. Parents must determine their child’s physical & mental ability to care for him or herself and ability to assess and respond appropriately to an emergency. The child’s maturity level, dependability, and ability to follow rules and make reasonable decisions are also key factors in the overall assessment of the child.

Deciding a child’s maturity level can be tricky. Actions, or inactions, can tell a lot. A responsible, mature person can carry out a duty and is accountable for his or her own behavior. Some characteristics and behaviors to look at when trying to determine a child’s maturity level are the abilities to think things through, reason and use logic; the ability to plan ahead; the ability to act independently and to say “No”; the ability to tell right from wrong; the ability to enforce rules if babysitting younger children; and the ability to recognize and respond to an emergency.

In addition to evaluating each child’s abilities, the circumstances necessitating each event in which a child is left home alone should also be given careful consideration. Questions to consider should include the following:

  • How long will the child be left alone and at what time of day?
  • How often will the child be expected to care for himself or others?
  • How easily can the parent be reached by telephone?
  • How close is the child to a trusted adult who can help in an emergency?
  • Is the home free of hazards?
  • How safe is the neighborhood?
  • Is the child expected to babysit younger siblings or prepare a meal?

Parents must also assure their child has the ability to respond appropriately in the event of an emergency. The US Department of Health and Human Services urges parents to consider having a safety plan which your child can follow. In addition, it encourages gathering an understanding of your child’s basic first aid knowledge. The American Red Cross Marion County Chapter offers a Babysitter’s Training Class to youth 11-15 years of age. Course instruction focuses around basic infant care and needs of school age children in addition to assisting students in identifying common safety hazards and learning first aid basics. The class also addresses common problems and conflicts experienced when supervising other children.

When parents assess their child is not ready to stay at home, there are safe childcare alternatives in the community. The Boys and Girls Club of Marion in partnership with the YMCA offers a summer program designed for school age children. This program is held for ten weeks and is packed with education and fun in a safe environment.

In addition, the YMCA offers many summer camps which not only focuses on sports instruction but also provides an emphasis on teamwork and building leadership skills for those who participate.

Should you feel your child is prepared and ready to be left home alone, MCCS provides the following tips from Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2007 for parents:

  • Have a trial period. Initially, leave your child for short periods of time to allow him or her to get used to being alone while remaining close to home. Gradually lengthen the amount of time as your child grows in confidence. This is a good way to gauge how your child will do.
  • Role Play. Talk to your child about things that could go wrong and brainstorm possible solutions (what if the key is lost, the dog gets loose, the doorbell rings, a friend wants to come over). Discuss the best ways to handle each situation.
  • Establish rules. Do not allow your child to go out of the house or to someone’s home without your permission. Make sure that your child knows the safety basics (to not answer the door, how to answer the telephone, where to go if locked out). Create a daily schedule or list of chores so your child remains busy.
  • Check in. Telephone your child or have your child telephone you periodically to check in. If you are not available, have another trusted individual check in on your child.
  • Talk about it. Continue to monitor the situation. Do not assume everything is all right because you haven’t heard differently. Talk with your child often about being home alone and address any worries or fears he or she might have.
  • Don’t overdo it. Even children capable and ready to stay home alone shouldn’t be home alone too long or frequent. Keep your child engaged in other activities such as those offered by the YMCA, local recreational center, churches or other community organizations.

Although deciding if a child is ready to be left alone can be a very difficult decision for parents, it can also be very rewarding. When children have the knowledge, maturity, and skills to stay home alone, it can be a positive growth opportunity for children to gain confidence in their own skills to become more independent, resourceful, and responsible individuals.

For additional information and helpful links to the Red Cross Marion Chapter, Boys & Girls Club, and local YMCA, visit the Marion County Children Services website at www.marionkids.com.

Article written by Anna Tinnerello, Intake/Investigation Supervisor at Marion County Children Services.