keep kids safe when home aloneChildren who regularly care for themselves before or after school are known as “self care” children or “latch-key” kids. For these children, “home alone” isn’t just a movie—it’s a reality. 

How old is old enough?  

By the time a child reaches 12 or 13, he can usually be relied on to be responsible without adult supervision. In deciding whether a younger child is ready to care for himself at home, consider the following factors:  

  • his comfort level while home alone
his ability to solve problems
the length of time he is to be home alone
your accessibility by phone  
his ability to use the telephone  
the availability of a nearby adult

If you’re unsure whether your child is ready, consider a dry run: Have him stay alone for a short period while you do an errand.  

Essential safety tips

Consider the following strategies to keep things safe and running smoothly:

The state of New Jersey does not specify a legal age at which it’s OK to leave children home alone; however, the National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child younger than 12 be left alone. 

Set clear rules for your child to follow. Safety concerns should be paramount. The rules might include coming home right after school, locking the door, arming the security alarm, not allowing strangers into the house, not using the stove and sharp knives, and not informing callers that you are home alone. Post these rules in a prominent place and review them on occasion with your child.  

Make sure your child can use the telephone. Post key numbers in a prominent place.   

Have your child keep the house key hidden from view. Wearing a key around the neck invites trouble by advertising his home-alone status. Also, parents should hide a key outside the house or give one to a neighbor in case their child loses his key. 

Have your child call you when he gets home. Leave instructions for your co-workers to track you down if your child calls.        

Be home when your child expects you. Your child will likely worry if you are late. If delayed, call your child to reassure him. 

Don’t miss the bus!

Make sure your child’s school affairs are in order the night before. If your child gets himself off to school, you may not have a chance in the morning to help organize him.  

Set an alarm to go off when your child is to leave for school. Children in self-care are not always reliable about leaving on time and risk missing their bus.  

Ask your child how it’s working

Some children in self-care relish the independence, while others may be fearful, lonely. They may comfort themselves by watching television, eating snacks, or going on the computer. Touch base with your child on a regular basis to make sure the arrangement is working for him. Ask how he spends his time and how he feels when he is home alone.

Dr. Shore, a psychologist, teaches part-time at Rutgers. He has authored six books and created a film series on bullying. Visit his website or email him.

What other safety precautions do you take when leaving you child home alone?