Parents are working longer hours than ever before. Providing supervision for their kids after school is a juggling act at best. Often, parents ask me… Is it ok for my kids to walk themselves home from school? Should someone be at our house to meet them? Will they stay safe and out of trouble until I show up later that afternoon? Is it ok for older sibs to watch them until I get back?
There are as many possible arrangements as there are different types of families and situations. Safety is naturally the first concern. But even when it’s safe, parents aren’t always sure their kids are ready to take the major step of being home alone. Parents need to consider a child’s readiness. Here are some tips to help.
1. Check in with families around the neighborhood. What are they doing? What do they think is realistic and appropriate for their kids, and what arrangements have they found work best? You’ll get useful advice and learn about potentially helpful resources in your area that give busy working parents support.
2. Age alone can’t be the only way to decide. There are children at nine or ten able to handle being alone for short periods of time, but many older kids aren’t ready. Rather than age, think about the maturity level of your child. How do they handle tasks? Stress? Can they carry out chores? Do they show good judgment when alone in another parts of the house? Do teachers tell you they are responsible at school? These are things to look for when deciding if your child is ready.
3. Being able to stay home alone is a developmental step for children. It’s about independence – and independence can be taught. Start small and build. Train kids to be independent while the family is together. Kids can be encouraged to spend more and more time in other parts of the house by themselves while playing or reading. Also, encourage them to make decisions for themselves. Before you remind them or do things for them, you might first ask, “what would you do if you were alone at home and needed to figure this out?”
4. Meanwhile, if you can’t find a sitter until you get home, consider the library. Certainly for mid-elementary and middle school kids, these are safe places that have trusted adult supervision. Many have after-school programs to encourage youngsters to come in, do homework in supervised groups, read, and some even allow quiet socializing. If your local library doesn’t have such programs, ask to help start one. There are also homework and science clubs, sports and rec centers, town swimming programs, and many after school organizations like Four-H Club.
5. I’m often asked, What if my child walks home alone? Are they ready to be home alone too? Children are sometimes ready to walk home a few blocks, along a safe route and in the company of others, but might feel afraid once they enter an empty house. These can be two very different developmental challenges. The goal is to help kids feel more relaxed at home while you’re not there. Again, think of this in steps. Maybe your child needs someone there for an hour, then in a few weeks cut it down to one-half hour, and finally, someone only needs to greet your child at the door and get them settled. Reward kids for taking on more freedom and responsibility. You can tie in a special “big boy” or “big girl” privilege to their willingness to handle more time by themselves and carrying it out maturely.
6. Older sibs can supervise, right? While some can, many cannot. Ask yourself if an older sib is the nurturing type, mature, and able to follow your guidelines while away. Ask yourself, would I let them be a babysitter to another family? That’s essentially what you’re asking of them. Not every kid is cut out to be in charge of younger kids.
7. Finally, have reliable back-up plans. In case of emergency, instructing your kids to call you or dial 911 makes obvious sense, but you’ll also need trusted friends, extended family in the area, and close neighbors willing to be available on-call to help should your child need adult help while you aren’t there. Rehearsing what to do if scenarios with your kids will help keep them feeling confident and safe.