Preparing Children to Stay Alone
North Central Regional Extension Publication No. 248
At some point during the school years, parents begin to consider the
possibility of having children care for themselves before or after school
rather than being cared for by others. Self-care can be a rewarding experience
for children who are ready for it. It can help them develop independence
and responsibility and can give them confidence in their own abilities.
However, if the child is not ready, self-care can be a frightening and potentially
How You Can Tell If Your Child Is Ready?
Unfortunately there is no magic age at which children develop the maturity
and good sense needed to stay alone. However, there are some signs that
show your child may be ready. First, your child should indicate a desire
and willingness to stay alone. Children who are easily frightened or who
express an unwillingness to stay alone are probably not ready for this responsibility.
In addition, your child should be showing signs of accepting responsibility
and being aware of the needs of others and should be able to consider alternatives
and make decisions independently. Children who are able to get ready for
school on time, solve problems on their own, complete homework and household
chores with a minimum of supervision, and remember to tell you where they
are going and when they will be back are demonstrating some of the skills
they will need to care for themselves. For many children these abilities
begin to appear between 10 to12 years. Finally, your child should be able
to talk easily with you about interests and concerns. Good parent-child
communication is needed to ensure that any fears or problems that arise
because of staying alone can be quickly discussed and dealt with.
If your child is showing such signs, you may want to consider self-care.
However, several other factors must also enter into your decision. These
are 1) the neighborhood in which you live, 2) the availability of adults
nearby, and 3) how long your child will be alone. If your neighborhood is
unsafe, if there are no adults nearby to call in case of an emergency, or
if your child must remain alone for a very long time, it is best to continue
to use some form of child care even if your child seems ready to
Preparing Your Child to Stay Alone
If you and your child agree that self-care is appropriate, the next step
is providing your child with the knowledge and training needed for this
Children who stay alone need to know:
- being locked out
- being afraid
- being bored
- being lonely
- arguments with brothers and sisters
House rules about leaving the house
- having friends in
- cooking and use of kitchen equipment
- appropriate snacks & meals
- talking with friends on the phone
- duties to be completed while home alone
Children who stay alone need to have:
- a list of emergency numbers
- knowledge of what to say in an emergency situation
- how to respond if someone calls
- understanding of appropriate and inappropriate reasons
for calling parents or other adults for help
- how to answer the door when alone
- how to lock and unlock doors and windows
- what to do if approached by a stranger on the way home
- what to do if they think someone is in the house when they get home
- what to do if someone touches them inappropriately
- kitchen safety (use of appliances, knives, and tools)
- what to do if they smell smoke
- or gas or in the event of a fire
- what to do during severe storms
- basic first aid techniques and how to know when to get help
Providing your children with this knowledge gives them confidence in their
abilities and will help them deal with any emergencies that may arise. When
teaching your children, give information gradually rather than all at once.
Too much information at one time is difficult to remember. Present your
children with a number of situations and have them act out their responses.
For example, pretend you are a stranger at the door asking to use the phone
to call a tow truck, and then pretend you are a salesman wanting to leave
some free samples. Giving many examples and having your children actually
respond to the situation will help them respond quickly and flexibly if
the situation actually occurs when they are alone. Simply telling them the
information is rarely effective. It is quickly forgotten.
Establishing a Trial Period
After you have helped your child acquire the skills and knowledge needed
to stay alone, set up a trial period of self care in order to see how your
child adjusts to the situation. Initially presenting it as a temporary arrangement
lets children know they can choose not to continue if they are uncomfortable
staying alone and also allows parents to more easily end the arrangement
if they feel the child is unable to handle the situation.
Throughout the trial period, and afterward if you continue the arrangement,
talk frequently with your child about his or her feelings. This will allow
you to deal with problems quickly and will help you remain close to your
child. Also, periodically review house rules and safety information with
your child. Children forget easily--especially if the information is seldom
used. However, this infrequently used knowledge--such as what to do in case
of a fire or other emergency--may one day be critical to your child's safety.
Children who are mentally and emotionally ready to stay alone, who have
been taught the skills and the knowledge needed to deal with this new responsibility,
and who are able to talk easily with their parents about fears or concerns
that may arise, can gain much from the opportunity to care for themselves.
Prepared by Christine M. Todd, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist,
Child Development, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Programs and activities of the Cooperative Extension Service are available
to all potential clientele without regard to race, color, sex, national
origin, or handicap.
In cooperation with the NCR Educational Materials Project
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of Congress May
8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture
and Cooperative Extension Services of Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota,
Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Dennis
Campion, Interim Director, Cooperative Extension Service, University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois 61801.
Sponsored by the Extension Services of Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan,
Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In cooperation with
Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.