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 dangerous situation.

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 stay alone.

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 new responsibility.

Children who stay alone need to know: How to react in situations such as

Children who stay alone need to have:

Good telephone skills
Good personal safety skills

Good home safety skills

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.

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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.