DEAR DOCTOR K:
My husband and I work full time, and we have a daughter in middle school. Is it safe for her to be alone after school until we get home from work?
By middle school, your child may be resisting the idea of a baby sitter or after-school program, yet you may not feel comfortable leaving her home by herself.
By the age of 11 or 12 — middle school — some children can stay home alone safely for up to a few hours. Every child matures at a different rate, so it’s not just age that matters in making your decision. To stay alone safely at home, your child must be mature enough to handle any potential emergency or stressful situation that may arise.
In addition, she should be able to understand and follow important instructions. If you leave your child home alone:
- Make sure she knows how to reach you. Post a phone number where you can be reached at all times, along with emergency numbers. Include the number of a trusted adult, in case you are not available.
- Have your child check in with you when she first gets home and then regularly until you get home.
- Teach your child basic safety rules:
- Do not enter your home if a door isn’t closed all the way, a window is open or broken, or a strange car is in the driveway.
- Keep all windows and doors locked.
- Call 911 in case of emergency.
- In case of fire, get out of the house as quickly as possible. Call for help from a neighbor’s house.
- Never let anyone into the home without your permission.
- Never let a caller on the phone know that there is no adult home.
- Do not use the stove, oven, microwave, space heaters or other heat-producing appliances while home alone, unless specifically given permission to do so.
- Make sure your child knows her full name, phone number with area code and address, including city and state.
One Saturday long ago I was on duty covering the practices of several colleagues, including a pediatrician. I was called by a woman who told me she had a problem with her middle-school-aged son. The boy had gotten mad at another kid at school the day before and kept talking about it all day. The woman had left her son at home for several hours and returned to find that he had set the mattress of his bed on fire.
I asked her, “Was your son burned?” She replied, “No, he’s fine.” “So how can I help you?” I asked. “I need your advice, doctor. Should I spank him?”
That’s a child who needs a few more years before he’s left at home alone — and a mother who needs to help her child deal better with frustration.