When to leave a child home alone is a difficult decision for most parents. The line between appropriate protection/supervision and the fostering of self-confidence/independence is not an easy one to determine. Unfortunately in many cases, family circumstances rather than parental judgment dictate the decision. Before this happens in your family, it may be a good idea to consider your answers to the following questions.
Children vary widely in their ability to follow instructions, occupy themselves, cope sensibly with unexpected situations, and resist temptations. Generally speaking, many ten-year-olds are ready to handle being alone for short periods of time. Age alone, however, is not a reliable guide. Sometimes children will give signals to help assess their maturing, such as spending more time on their own, taking more responsibility for homework or doing chores without reminders. And do remember, a determination that your child is mature enough to be left alone for an hour or two doesn't mean that she is ready to be left in charge of a younger sibling or neighbor.
If a neighbor is not available, reliable and familiar to your child, you may want to be more cautious about leaving her unsupervised. A familiar and willing neighbor can ease the minds of both parent and child. It is a good idea to make sure you have discussed issues among the three of you so all are acquainted with the plan.
Most likely, you have already introduced this subject to your child. It may be worthwhile at this point to review previous messages. A stranger who approaches a child for any reason should always be regarded with suspicion. Explain to your child that an adult with a genuine problem would never ask a child for help - he would ask another adult instead. Warn your child to reject any such request. Yet there are times when the best thing your child can do is to approach a stranger - when he is lost in the shopping mall, for example. In these cases, children should be encouraged to thoughtfully choose a stranger such as a person in uniform, store employee or a mother with children in tow.
After considering these factors to your satisfaction, you can begin preparing your child (and yourself!) for time alone - one step at a time.
Children have an easier time following rules if they are specific. Discuss with your child how far from home she can venture, whether friends are allowed inside the house, time limits for telephone conversations, acceptable before-dinner snacks.
Make a schedule of activities and post it on the refrigerator. Be specific. For example:
Having some structure helps make free time less lonely and alleviates boredom.
Post a list of important telephone numbers next to your child's schedule. Make sure your child knows how and when to call 911. Other numbers should include:
Try to do this in a way that does not leave your child fearful or overly anxious. Rather than cautionary tales about terrible things that may happen, teach a few basic rules.
If the doorbell rings:
If an unknown person calls on the telephone:
If the door or window is open when your child arrives home:
If a fire breaks out:
Make up some hypothetical emergencies, write them on file cards, and put them in a jar. Ask your child to draw a card and act out or explain his response. Join in if the situation calls for two people. With your child, develop strategies for what to do if you're late coming home. Practice from time to time by deliberately being late to give your child a chance to show whether he can remember the ideas.
Let children know what to expect when they call you at work. If your child has not yet visited your workplace, arrange for her to do so. This helps a child visualize where you are when you are not home. Leave a special message or snack surprise to let your child know she is in your thoughts when you are away from home.
Run an errand or visit a neighbor the first few times. Gradually increase the frequency and predictability of your absences. But remember that no elementary school-aged child should be left alone for extended periods of time, particularly at night.