Self-care can be a rewarding experience for children who are ready for it. It can help them develop independence and responsibility and can give them confidence in their own abilities. However, if the child is not ready, self-care can be a frightening and dangerous situation.
Is my child ready?
There is no magic age at which children develop the maturity and good sense needed to stay alone. However, there are some signs that show your child may be ready.
First, your child should indicate a desire and willingness to stay alone. Children who are easily frightened or who don’t want to stay alone are probably not ready to do so.
Your child should also be showing signs that he or she can be responsible, is aware of the needs of others, and can think about options and make decisions independently. Children who are able to get ready for school on time, solve problems on their own, complete homework and household chores with a minimum of supervision, and remember to tell you where they are going and when they will be back have some of the skills they will need to care for themselves. For many children, these abilities begin to appear between the ages of ten and twelve.
Finally, your child should be able to talk easily with you about interests and concerns. Good parent-child communication is needed so you and your child can discuss and deal with any fears or problems that arise because of staying alone.
If your child shows these signs, you may want to consider self-care. However, you must also think about several other factors.
- The neighborhood in which you live.
- The availability of adults.
- How long your child will be alone.
If your neighborhood is unsafe, if there are no adults nearby to call in case of an emergency, or if your child must remain alone for a very long time, it is best to continue to use some form of child care even if your child seems ready to stay alone. Remember, children, like adults, are all different. Some are more independent than others, and some are more fearful, despite your care and preparation.
Preparing your child
If you and your child decide that you are ready for self-care, the next step is giving your child some guidelines, knowledge, and training. Involve your children in decisions and discussions that affect them. If children understand the reasons for the rules and participate in developing the rules, they are more likely to follow them.
What children need to know
- How to react in situations such as:
- Being locked out
- Being afraid, bored, lonely
- Arguments with siblings
- House rules about:
- Checking in with a responsible adult
- Leaving the house/yard
- Having friends in the house/yard
- Cooking and use of kitchen equipment/appliances
- Appropriate snacks and meals
- Talking on the phone
- Specific responsibilities and activities
- Caring for siblings
- Use of leisure time (TV, play, etc.)
What skills children need to have
- Telephone skills such as:
- A list of emergency numbers
- Know what to say in an emergency situation; know address and phone number
- Know how to respond if someone calls
- Understand appropriate and inappropriate reasons for calling parents or other adults for help
- Personal safety skills such as:
- How to answer the door when alone
- How to lock and unlock doors and windows
- What to do if approached by a stranger on the way home
- What to do if someone touches them inappropriately
- Home safety skills such as:
- Kitchen safety (use of appliances, knives, and tools)
- What to do if they smell smoke or gas or in the event of a fire
- What to do during severe storms, blackouts, etc.
- Basic first aid techniques and how to know when to get help
This knowledge gives your children confidence in their abilities and will help them deal with emergencies. When teaching your children, give information gradually rather than all at once. Too much information at one time is difficult to remember.
Imagine some situations and have your children act out their responses. For example, pretend you are a stranger at the door asking to use the phone to call a tow truck or a sales person wanting to leave some free samples. Giving many examples and having your children actually respond to the situation will help them respond quickly and flexibly if the situation actually occurs when they are alone.
Don’t assume your children understand just because you have told them what to do. Through role playing and discussing different situations, you will see what your child thought was important. Then you will have the opportunity to ask questions or reinforce main points. Think through with your child what things could go wrong and brainstorm solutions.
Try it out
If you are thinking about leaving your child alone on a regular, full-time basis, it is helpful to have some trial runs first. One way to do this is to leave the child alone for a specified period of time while shopping or visiting a neighbor.
Follow up the experience with a discussion about how it felt. Listen carefully for reactions. If this works well, continue the trial runs with a few variations. Increase the amount of time you’re gone and leave some specific directions to be followed. After each experience, sit down and talk with the child about how the experience was and how the child felt. If problems exist with fears or inability and unwillingness to assume responsibilities, the child may not be ready for being on his or her own. If the signs indicate that the child can handle the responsibility, keep channels of communication open to discuss whatever comes up.
Periodically review house rules and safety information with your child. Children forget, especially if the information is seldom used. However, this infrequently-used knowledge — such as what to do in case of a fire or other emergency — may one day be critical to your child’s safety.
Children who are mentally and emotionally ready to stay alone, who have been taught the skills and knowledge needed to deal with this new responsibility, and who are able to talk easily with their parents about fears or concerns that may arise, can gain much from the opportunity to care for themselves.
American Red Cross. (2015). Kids home alone? Follow these safety steps.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Leaving your child home alone.
Iowa State University Extension. (2006). A guide for parents with school-agers who are home alone. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Extension.
Todd, C. M. (2001) Preparing children to stay alone. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign.