Every parent wonders whether a child is old enough to be left alone, and for the first few times we will worry they will be safe on their own.
The law does not dictate how old a child must be before they can be left alone at home. However, the law does state that any child must have appropriate supervision or guardianship. How does a parent or guardian determine whether or not their child is old enough to leave at home alone?
Cathy Coleman of the Department of Youth and Family Services of Ocean County says her office is guided by certain criteria in deciding if a child may be appropriately left alone. She also reminds us that there are no established statewide standards and each county devised its own criteria that may vary from neighboring counties.
Ms. Coleman says parents are responsible for making sound judgments using common sense and their knowledge of their child and his/her abilities. Any child up to age eight or nine should never be left alone and neither should a child who is disabled or mentally handicapped. Children up to the age of twelve still need some kind of caretaker. According to Ms. Coleman, even a sixteen-year-old should not be left alone for an entire weekend. Parents should also take care when considering siblings as caretakers, especially those that do not get along well.
Many factors should be taken into consideration before the decision is made to let a child stay home alone. First, take the neighborhood into account. Is it relatively safe? Are there high crime areas nearby? Are the neighbors close-knit and caring or are they distant and uninvolved? Is there a neighbor who can keep watch and be available for assistance if needed?
The child’s maturity and chronological age should also be part of the equation. Is he/she responsible? Do they know and practice proper safety guidelines set by parents? Do they obey rules about answering the telephone or door? Can they cook or operate machinery safely while alone? Have they developed basic decision-making skills?
Parents should also take the child’s feelings into account. Would they be fearful when left alone? Many children might say they want to stay alone but are relieved when parents decide otherwise. With many parents working and the high cost of child-care, some children are allowed to become ‘latch-key kids.’ When these children are staying alone on a regular basis the focus should be on enhancing life skills so they are nourished, feel nurtured, and stay safe.
Cathy Coleman also suggests programs or courses that are presented at local schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, or clinics. These programs teach kids and parents about things they can do to improve ‘latch-key’ situations. Ms. Coleman adds, “If parents are asking this many questions or they have other concerns, then they should not leave their children home alone.”
Reprinted from the April 2000 Issue of Parent Rap with permission.
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