OZARK, Mo. – You arrive home, unlock the door and walk into an empty house. The house seems bigger and quieter. Every little noise is suspicious and a bit creepy. Now, imagine you’re only 10 years old.
According to the Afterschool Alliance, more than 15 million school-age children come home to an empty house after school. Renette Wardlow, human development specialist for University of Missouri Extension, says not all children are mature enough to home alone.
“Some children seem to be quite at ease when they’re alone. Other, more timid children may require a little extra planning,” Wardlow said. “Leaving a child home alone before they’re ready can be a very dangerous thing.”
A couple practice runs may help both parent and child decide if they’re ready. Wardlow suggests that parents test their child’s maturity by leaving them alone for 30 minutes to an hour while the parent is nearby. After each home-alone trial, parents should discuss the experience with their children. This can help them decide what needs to be changed or what additional skills the child might need.
“Give children the chance to express their fears about what might go wrong around the house or certain things that they’re afraid of,” she said.
Parents will never completely lose their anxiety over leaving their children without supervision, but building a good support system can help both parent and child. That system starts with teaching a child how to reach an adult for help.
“That’s absolutely critical,” Wardlow said. “The child needs a phone number or needs to know where the parent works. A backup adult or guardian who can be called if the parent is unavailable is also very important.”
Before they’re left on their own, children must know what to do if something goes wrong.
“Children should know emergency numbers and what to do if something should happen,” Wardlow said. “Create and practice action plans for various scenarios, such as what to do if a stranger is at the door or on the phone, what to do in case of fire, or even something as common as what to do if the toilet overflows.”
Wardlow said parents should set a schedule for their children while they’re unsupervised. Filling that time with homework, play or chores can give children a sense of time and a sense of when the parent will return home.
Television, music or a pet can help fill the emptiness in a home. Homework might be a better choice than TV, but if a child is going to turn on the tube, there must be rules.
“Parents need to set guidelines for a specific amount of time for watching TV and the types of programs allowed,” Wardlow said.
Another practical way to fill the emptiness is leaving notes, she said. They can tell the child about a chore or they can offer words of praise and encouragement. Be sure to leave those notes in places where the child is sure to find them.
Just a little planning, preparation and practice can help parents and their children get comfortable with home-alone days.