Each day, millions of children in the United States stay home alone for a period of time before or after school. It’s not an ideal situation, but the pressures of working parents and the high cost of daycare make it a necessity for many.
Do you wonder about the safety issues surrounding leaving your children at home by themselves? Read on for advice on how to know when they’re old enough and how you can make their environment safer and more secure.
When is a child old enough to stay home alone?
Three states have laws setting a minimum age for leaving children home alone: A child must be 8 in Maryland, 10 in Oregon, and 14 in Illinois.
A few more states have age guidelines:
- 6 is recommended in Kansas
- 8 in Georgia and North Carolina
- 9 in North Dakota
- 10 in New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington
- 11 in Michigan
- 12 in Colorado, Delaware and Mississippi
The remaining states leave the judgment solely up to the parents.
But whether a child is ready has more to do with his or her maturity and a parent’s understanding of how that child will react in certain situations. Does the child follow directions well? Does she act responsibly when given tasks and chores? Does he do his homework when left unsupervised, or turn on the television? And what happens when there’s an unfamiliar person at the door or on the phone?
“It depends on their personality and on what other responsibilities they have at home,” said psychotherapist and parenting consultant Michelle Visser in an interview with The Washington Post. “Are they anxious? Do they still want to hold your hand if it’s really crowded somewhere? Are they waiting for you to leave the house so they can go to the computer and go to that website you said they couldn’t go to?”
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, your children are ready to stay home alone if…
- They are able to care for themselves physically and mentally for a short time;
- They aren’t fearful or clingy when left alone;
- You know they will follow the rules while you’re gone;
- They have manageable reactions to stressful situations;
- The neighborhood is safe;
- They know how to contact you;
- You have corrected and removed any hazards in the home;
- There is a plan in case he or she gets locked out;
- There is an adult neighbor nearby who can help in an emergency.
Safety, home security and smart home tech
When you’ve decided your child is old enough to be allowed to stay home alone for a period of time, there are steps you can take to help your child manage the situation, and smart-home security and technology options that can add an extra level of protection and give you peace of mind.
- Set ground rules. Are other children allowed to come over? Are your children allowed to go outside? Are they allowed to cook, watch television, get on the computer, talk on the phone or answer the door? Establish a clear set of things that they can and cannot do.
- Make sure the child takes the same way home from school each day, for instance, always walking the same route or always taking the school bus even if a friend offers a ride.
- Have the child check in with you when he or she gets home.
- Create a routine the child is to follow once he or she gets home: an approved snack, homework, music practice or limited screen time.
- Make an emergency plan and practice it. Write the plan down and put it where the child can find it easily. Demonstrate the sounds that the smoke alarm, carbon monoxide detector or alarm system can make.
- A power outage may not be an emergency, but it can be scary for children. Keep flashlights with fresh batteries in an accessible place.
- You child-proofed your home when your son or daughter was a toddler, but you need to do it again when children are old enough to be left home alone. Depending on their ages, items such as poisons (pesticides, detergents, cleaning solutions), weapons (guns, ammunition, knives) and household items that could cause injury (razor blades, scissors, hand tools) should be put out of reach or locked away.
Technology options that can increase your home security
- Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors: These should be basic for every home. Typical models have batteries that need to be checked or changed annually. You can also invest in monitored smoke detectors that not only signal a potential fire with sound, but also by notifying a monitoring center.
- Video doorbell cameras: These allow you or your children to see who’s at the door before answering. Some allow you to speak to the caller through your smartphone, which would give the impression that an adult is home.
- Smart locks: The old term “latchkey kids” referred to the fact that these children often wore their house keys on cords around their necks. Today, smart door locks with keypads mean that each child can have his or her own user code. They also can be monitored remotely, letting you know when each child gets home.
- Door and window sensors and glass-break detectors: These sound an alarm if a lock is picked, a door or window is opened, or glass is broken. Different devices make noise, notify the authorities and/or send an alert to your smartphone.
- Remote surveillance cameras: Want to keep watch on what’s going on inside and out? Remote cameras let you do this. They include so-called “nanny cams” – interior cameras that record and/or send a livestream you can monitor – and motion-activated outside cameras, so you can tell whether there is an unauthorized person on the property.
- Monitored alarm systems: For the peace of mind of having a company monitor your security, you can have a system installed in your home that you control with a panel inside the house and via your internet-connected smartphone. Should anything set off the alarm, the monitoring company notifies authorities directly.
- Garage door control systems: Ever wondered whether you left the garage door open after you’ve driven away from home? These devices allow you to open or close your garage door remotely and can notify you if the door is left open.
- Geo-fences: Geo-fences are location-based security system feature that monitors your location through your smartphone’s GPS or other location-tracking. The system can be set up to send you notifications about your smart home devices when you are a certain distance away from the area you set up as “home.”
These devices can be used to build an integrated security system that meets your unique needs. Every family, every home is different. Take stock of your situation and explore the options that are right for you.
Do you plan to allow your child to stay home alone? Review our eight-page child safety brochure, which includes tips on stranger danger, safety tips for children and parents, recognizing risks and installing security.
For more information on how your home security system can be adapted to the needs of your family, call 1.800.PROTECT (1.800.776.8328 ) to speak with a Guardian representative or request a free quote.