After school, it’s never a good idea for a young child to come home to an empty house, so working parents take pains to make childcare arrangements that are appropriate and safe. But at other times, parents may need to go out briefly and leave their children home unsupervised. New Jersey law doesn’t specify an exact age at which children are legally allowed to stay home alone or babysit for younger children, so parents must decide that for themselves.

The Right Age

As a guideline, the National SAFE KIDS Campaign recommends no child under age 12 be left home alone. But Linda Kriegel, former director of the Office for Children in the Bergen County Department of Human Services, says, “It is hard to say a ‘right’ age for staying home alone.” In addition to chronological age, parents should consider a child’s maturity and temperament. Kriegel says, “Independence, responsibility, judgment, and decision-making capabilities all factor into whether a child is ready.”

Many preteens will express a desire to stay by themselves, and this request often signals their readiness. Conversely, Kriegel says, “Some children are fearful staying by themselves and parents should not leave a child who does not feel comfortable being alone.”

  • Before driving off, outline the house rules. Some, such as using appliances or answering the door, may be different when a child is alone than when a parent is home. Discuss various situations that could occur and help your child to visualize different scenarios.
  • List all emergency contact information: parents’ cell phones, a neighbor, poison control, police, ambulance, and fire department. Reassure your child that if he has any questions or concerns, he should call for help. But contacting a parent should be the first option, so remain available and keep your cell phone on. Discuss in advance what to do if there’s an emergency.
  • Start slowly. Leave your child home for a short period and stay close by. Kriegel says, “Positive experiences will help parents and children gain confidence. Together they can gradually build up to the child staying alone for longer periods of time.”

Ready to Babysit?

Annette Romano, director of health and safety at the Millburn Short Hills chapter of the American Red Cross, says, “Babysitting is a job and a responsibility. Not all kids are suited to the demands of babysitting or have a desire to babysit. Parents shouldn’t push kids to babysit who don’t express an interest.”

Leaving younger children home with an older sibling may seem ideal, but Romano says sometimes it can be problematic. “The dynamic between siblings can make babysitting much more difficult. The younger child may not want to listen to the older child, saying things like, ‘You’re not my boss,’ while an older child may abuse her authority with a sibling,” she says.

If you think there’s too much friction between your children, hire a sitter. When interviewing potential babysitters, ask about prior experience with children, references, and formal training. Babysitter training courses such as the ones offered by the American Red Cross teach the basics, from childcare skills (diapering, feeding, etc.), to first aid, to handling emergencies.

Before hiring a babysitter, explain what the job will entail. Babysitting a child who will be asleep most of the evening is different from babysitting multiple children who will need to be fed, bathed, and entertained. If possible, have the sitter meet the children and spend time with them while you’re home.

Discuss house rules with both the children and the sitter. From television viewing to food restrictions to discipline, a babysitter will have an easier time meeting parents’ expectations if those expectations have been clearly communicated.

Randi Mazzella, mom of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills, New Jersey.

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