For working parents, finding care for their children can be a huge headache, especially if they work the night shift. Care is not only expensive, it’s also just hard to find.
During the school year, a family might need childcare after school hours or during school breaks. When school lets out for the summer, finding childcare can become a much greater challenge, which sometimes forces parents to entertain the idea of letting their child be home alone.
Some states have laws regarding a minimum age for leaving children home alone. In Pennsylvania, however, the law does not provide much guidance. It’s pretty much up to the discretion of the parents, who must decide what's best for their child.
According to Erin James, Press Secretary for the Pa. Department of Human Services, there is no legal age that specifies when a child can be left alone.
“Consideration should be given to the child’s maturity, knowledge and the ability to react in an emergency situation, the length of time the child would be alone and the time of day that the child would be alone,” says James.
The National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be alone at home.
Although one can agree with the SAFEKIDS campaign, age is not the only consideration. Parents need to use their own judgement and look for signs their child is truly ready to handle being home alone, because every child and every situation is different.
“It’s not about their age but where they are emotionally in their development,” says Crystal Natan, executive director of Lancaster County Children and Youth.
“Still, I would not advise that children under 10 be alone even if they are considered to be mature,” says Natan.
Before you make the decision to leave your child unsupervised, you may want to evaluate their level of maturity and if they have demonstrated responsible behavior in the past. Watch how they act when you aren’t in the same room with them. It will give you a sense of their behavior and typical responses to some situations.
Can you trust them on bigger issues like not answering the door or knowing what to do in an emergency? It’s not about just following the rules, but knowing how to stay safe as well.
“Obviously, it might not be in the child’s best interest to stay home alone If there are intellectual or physical disabilities,” says Natan.
If a parent has been reported for leaving their child unattended, she says, it is highly likely that the police or an agency such as Children and Youth will investigate the incident.
Just because there is not a specific state law does not mean you can assume that leaving your child alone is all right.
“You can cross the line very quickly if the child is young and something happens to that child even if it’s accidental,” says Natan. “When a situation like that rises to a certain level of seriousness, there could be charges brought against the parents for lack of supervision.”
“Parents need to be very conscientious when considering leaving a child at home alone or leaving older siblings in charge of caring for younger ones,” she says.
Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?
Talk to him or her to see how they feel about it. Some children may be ready for it, but others might get anxious or worried. Take that as a good indicator.
If you determine that your child is ready, go over all necessary steps and instructions, setting a few ground rules and reviewing safety procedures.
Have a trial period. Leave the child home alone for a short time, for 15 – 30 minutes, while staying close to home. This is a good way to see how he or she will manage.
Role play. Act out possible situations to help your child learn what to do, such as how to manage visitors who come to the door or how to answer phone calls in a way that doesn’t reveal that a parent is not at home.
Establish rules. Make sure your child knows what is (and is not) allowed when you are not home. Some experts suggest making a list of chores or other tasks to keep children busy while you are gone.
Phone. Have a cell phone available if there is no landline. Leave a list of emergency numbers, including neighbors and family. Go over how and when to call 911, and what to say.
Discuss emergencies. Have a code word that you and your child can use in the event of any emergency. Outline what to do in case of fire.
Check in. Call your child while you are away to see how it’s going. Make sure they know how to get in touch with you. Always let he or she know when you will be home, and don’t forget to call if you have a change in plans.
Safe place. Designate a neighbor’s house as a “safe house” for your child to run to if he or she feels in danger.
“There is no real magic here. There has to be a safety net and an action plan. If at all possible, there should always be a responsible adult present because things can happen very quickly,” says Natan.