When a child is old enough to stay home alone is a judgment call, experts say.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families has published a list of factors to be considered before a child is left home alone:
“Young children from 0-6 years should not be left alone for even short periods of time. Children 6-9 years should be left for only short periods, depending on their level of maturity. … Children 10 and above probably (underlined) can be left for somewhat longer periods, again dependent upon the other factors,” it says. One of the risks, it notes, is fire-setting, especially with children with developmental disabilities or emotional disturbances.
Victoria Manning, principal at Pleasant Valley Middle School, said, “Every kid is different … so I’m not sure it’s as easy to say, ‘You have to be 12.’” Some 11-year-olds have enough common sense and maturity to be alone, she said.
There can be times when any parent might not get home in time, leaving a child alone unexpectedly, she said, so parents need to make sure their children know what to do and not what not to do: not only about calling 911, but also not using the stove, having a neighbor to go to for help, knowing how to evacuate, etc.
Time also matters, Manning said, saying it’s one thing to leave a child for 30 minutes, another if it’s for two hours. “Kids get bored, and sometimes they find things to do,” which can get them in trouble, she said. Sometimes children together are more apt to find trouble.
There are built-in challenges, she said. “It’s hard to get an 11-year-old child care,” not all schools have after-school programs, “and day care’s expensive.” Manning’s students get out of school at 3:10 p.m., when most parents aren’t home.
Kathy Stybr, principal at Isely Traditional Magnet Elementary School, said one way for parents to evaluate whether their children are ready to be left alone is to think of the kids’ “ability to handle situations that may not be normal” and then “equipping them with some sort of reaction.” The decision has to be “child by child,” she said.
“I have some fifth-graders that I would never want them to be home alone. They have not shown the maturity level.”
Part of Stybr’s “safety plan” is having children who go home alone call a parent once they get inside, to make sure they are safe. Another is reminding children who are alone not to answer a knock at the door, even if they know the person.