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Dear Dr. Vicki,
I have two children, ages 9 and 12. I have to work and I don’t have anyone to watch them, so they come home after school and stay in until I get home. My friends think they are too young. What do you think?
Dr. Vicki’s response:
Latchkey decisions are tough calls. However, you are certainly not alone in your dilemma. Nearly 7 million children ages 5 to 14 were regularly left unsupervised while their parents were at work or away for other reasons, according to a 2000 Census report. That’s a staggering number! Unfortunately, many children are not up to the task.
I recommend that children who stay home alone must be mature enough to handle the responsibility. Be sure to ask whether they feel comfortable with the idea. It is important that your children feel safe and comfortable coming home to an empty house. If a child doesn’t feel comfortable, then a parent should not consider this option.
Giving a particular age at which a child can be left alone is difficult because maturity levels vary. There are 10-year-olds who are mature enough to handle household emergencies, dial 911 and call parents. Yet some 15-year-olds are not mature enough to be left alone.
I am not comfortable leaving children younger than 12 at home without supervision because of safety concerns. And leaving a 12-year-old to be responsible for a younger sibling is a huge responsibility to rest on his shoulders.
On the other hand, leaving a child at home can be a positive experience for the right family. A child can feel as though it’s a privilege with a chance to prove maturity. If the child feels like this is ‘cool,’ then fine. But be careful. I am seeing too many children who are anxious because they are being required to assume more responsibility than they can handle. Parents are requiring them to act older than their age.
If you must leave them alone, be sure to have strict security measures in place. Teach them how to call 911 in case of an emergency. Other safety measures include having other emergency phone numbers on the refrigerator, program the telephone so children can reach you by pushing one button, check with neighbors to see whether they can help if needed, have them check in with you as soon as they get home, continue to have regular phone contact with them until you get home.
Also, set strict rules on what the children can and cannot do. Cooking, inviting friends over or answering the door are big no-no’s. And make sure they are aware of the rules and follow them completely.
© MMVI Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D.