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Guidelines for Leaving Your Child Home Alone

Debra Greenhouse MD

Deborah Greenhouse, M.D. Offers Guidelines for Leaving Your Child Home Alone

The age for leaving a child at home varies greatly from child to child because of a number of factors, including the child's maturity and ability to handle responsibility.

It is safe to say that a child younger than eight years old should not be left home alone, even for a short period of time. Between the ages of eight and 10, a child who is very responsible may be left for 30 minutes, but not longer than one hour. During this time, the child should be able to keep in close contact with a parent.

The decision to leave your child at home alone, even for a brief period, should be based on common sense. You need to establish a very well-defined set of ground rules.

Do some role-playing and ask questions to find out how your child would handle situations that might arise.

Here are some situations to consider when evaluating your child's readiness to be alone:

  • Is your child comfortable with the idea of being home alone? If not, your child is not ready to be left alone.
  • Does your child understand basic safety issues?
  • Does your child know how to handle an emergency?
  • Does your child know basic first aid and where supplies are stored?
  • What would your child do if he spotted a stranger in the yard?
  • What would he do if someone knocked at the door?
  • What would he do if there was a fire?
  • What would he say to a caller who asked for you?
  • What would he do if he were locked out of the house?
  • What would he do if there was a power outage or a warning about serious weather?
  • Does your child know how to operate your home's security system?
  • Will your child be responsible for younger siblings?  What will your child do if he or a sibling gets sick or injured?
  • Is there a trusted relative or neighbor nearby?
  • Does your child have the ability to contact you while you are away?
  • Can your child get himself a sandwich or a snack if necessary?
  • Are there firearms in the home and are they kept safely stored in a locked storage area?

You need to be convinced that your child will follow your rules. Your neighborhood, and the proximity of trusted neighbors or relatives, also is important. Your rules may include:

  • Never let anyone in the house when a parent is not home.
  • Keep the doors locked and do not leave the house.
  • Never tell a caller that no one else is home.
  • No using the stove or the microwave when home alone.
  • In a house with a pool, no one goes near the pool unless an adult is present.
  • Guidelines for computer, television and video game use.

Something else to consider is that not every home today still has a land line telephone. A child who is home alone needs to have a way to contact a parent or to call 911 in the event of an emergency. You also should post emergency numbers for neighbors, relatives, doctors and the Palmetto Poison Center hotline - 800-222-1222.

According to Safe Kids USA, more than three million children aged 14 and under get hurt at home each year and more than 2,000 die from unintentional injuries in the home. Fire, suffocation, drowning, choking, falls, firearms and poisoning are among the leading causes of unintentional home injury or death for this age group.

You know your child's maturity level, strengths and capabilities best. The decision to leave your child home alone is a difficult one and deserves careful deliberation and preparation. Talk with your pediatrician about your child's age and readiness, and then start with small increments of time.

About Dr. Deborah Greenhouse
Dr. Deborah Greenhouse is a private pediatrician with Palmetto Pediatrics in Columbia. She and her husband, Dr. David Greenhouse, have two daughters, ages 17 and 14. Her interests include reading, hiking and gardening. Currently, she is vice president of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.