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HOME ALONE: SELF-CARE OR DAY CARE?

When an Illinois couple was charged in 1992 with leaving their young daughters - ages 4 and 9 - home unsupervised while they took a nine-day vacation in Mexico, parents everywhere expressed shock and disapproval. David and Sharon Schoo, who live in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, hadn't hired a baby sitter or even asked neighbors to check on the youngsters, prosecutors said.

The 1990 case of Chante Fernandez, a young single mother in a crime-ridden New Jersey city, prompted similar outrage - but with a measure of sympathy. Fernandez, who said that she feared losing her weekend job at a mall when she couldn't find affordable child care, was arrested after leaving her 5-year-old daughter locked in the back of a hatchback car while she worked. "The car was the safest place for her," Fernandez told reporters. After a brief but public legal battle, she was given a suspended fine and regained custody of her child.The cases above are extreme, but they highlight a growing national concern: More and more children are having to fend for themselves for increasing periods of time. In 1990, about 3.5 million children under the age of 13 regularly took care of themselves during a typical week. That's an increase of nearly 100 percent since 1984, according to the National Child Care Survey of Washington, D.C.'s Urban Institute. And the survey's figures may be low: Some experts think as many as 10 million kids are home alone for at least a part of the day.

CONSEQUENCES

Children start taking care of themselves at about 9 years old, according to the survey, though the authors suspect that most youngsters under the age of 13 spend no more than an hour before school - and one or two hours afterward - by themselves. But many working moms and child-care experts are unhappy about even that limited time.

"Up to age 12 or 13, children are, or should be, learning a lot by interacting with other people," says Margaret Plantz, director of Project Home Safe. "When children are isolated for several hours a day, week after week, there may be consequences for how and what those children learn and their social development."

Younger children may feel afraid, Plantz notes, while older children may engage in undesirable activities. A study by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Behavior shows that nearly a third of all eighth-graders are home alone for at least two hours after school - and that's the most common occasion for adolescents to have sexual intercourse.

Yet not all youngsters are adversely affected. Many kids use the hours productively and view the time alone as a vote of confidence from parents. The difference: Those children are sufficiently mature, well-prepared and comfortable with the idea of caring for themselves.

WHAT AGE?

Since children mature at varying rates, there's no magic age for determining when they can safely be left home alone. But some experts consider 8 the minimum age at which parents can start easing kids into self-care.

Before deciding that the time is right, ask yourself several questions: Do you feel comfortable about giving your youngster more independence and freedom? Has your child or family been through a major transition - a move, a death, a divorce? If so, it's probably not a good time to leave him home alone. Does your youngster have special needs - medical, physical or emotional? Are your home and neighborhood as safe as possible? Would your child be better off in day care? Follow these questions with the readiness quiz below.

It's also important to consider your child's limitations. Most kids between ages 6 and 13 can follow rules, but their ability to cope with new situations may be limited, cautions Cynthia Cole, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Kentucky. That means if a youngster has been told, "Don't leave the house, no matter what," he may follow the rule steadfastly, even if he desperately needs help from someone outside the home.

To help you evaluate your child's problem-solving skills, ask him how he would cope with different situations: a stranger knocking at the door, taking a phone message, the smoke alarm going off or caring for an injury.

When you feel he's ready, proceed - but move forward slowly and gradually. Rather than waiting until you must go out, "practice" by leaving him alone while you take a 15-minute walk around the block, suggests Hyman Rodman, professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. "That way, you can get some feedback from your child to see how things went and what his concerns are," Rodman says.

SETTING THE STAGE

Getting ready for self-care can be exciting, with your child feeling proud and grown-up and you helping him to build skills. Give him a hand with clear, simple rules and a dose of confidence.

- SET GROUND RULES. Your child - and you - will feel most comfortable when he knows exactly what he is and isn't allowed to do. Spell out how much television and telephone time he is permitted, what he should eat and when or if he may leave the house. You should follow rules, too - such as telling him when you'll call and when you'll be home.

- STRANGERS. While you're still home, let your youngster practice handling phone calls and answering the door. That way, he'll feel sure about what to say and do when you leave. If a caller asks for a parent, he should say only, "My mom (or dad) can't come to the phone." If someone knocks, he should see who's at the door before opening it, and not let anyone inside unless you've given prior approval.

- HOUSE SMARTS. Tell your child, "You're so grown-up that I trust you to watch the house." Then, go on a house tour. Show him the fuse box. Tell him which appliances he can use and how to work them. If your child is ready to operate the microwave, show him how to heat up food and which dishes to use. If your child is letting himself into the house, help him practice locking and unlocking the doors - and give him a secure place to keep the key (perhaps on a neck chain).

- SAFETY RULES. This is a good time to review fire-safety rules and practice quick routes out of the house. Most important: that children know their first priority is getting out, THEN calling for help. What if the power goes out? Point out where a flashlight and transistor radio are stored. And leave a first-aid kit handy.

- CHECK IN. Ask your child to call you or another designated person when he first gets home. You'll know where he is, and he won't feel isolated. You could install "Call Waiting," so you can get through at any time.

- SOMEONE TO CALL. Leave a list of important phone numbers next to every phone. Make sure a trusted friend or relative is close by so he can make contact, and be sure that person knows his or her role. Your community may also have a "warm line," a phone-in service that helps children with simple problems (such as homework) and addresses their anxieties. Some programs pair elderly shut-ins with kids in self-care.

- FUN. Make your child's time alone as enjoyable as possible by suggesting activities and games. Leave treats in the fridge and some "I love you" notes for surprises.

SIBLINGS AS SITTERS

Having a child who's responsible enough to care for his younger brothers and sisters is every parent's dream. But experts caution parents against expecting too much too soon. "If you have two children between the ages of 6 and 13 staying alone together, you basically have two children in self-care," says Cole. Neither youngster is likely to be able to cope with the unexpected - and the weight of responsibility may overwhelm all but the most mature older siblings.

For more than brief periods of time, wait until the older child is at least 13 or 14 before putting him in charge. Provide the same safety information you would when leaving a child alone. In addition, spell out precisely how he should handle siblings' mishaps or misbehavior; and encourage him to call you, or another trusted adult, for help if he feels unsure about anything. Finish by telling him how much you're counting on his good judgment and that you need him to be truly attentive to his younger charges - preferably staying in the same room with them.

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Additional Information

QUIZ: IS YOUR CHILD READY?

If you can answer yes to most of the questions in this Project Home Safe quiz, your youngsters will probably feel safe and secure while home alone.

1. Is your child physically ready? Can he:

- lock and unlock doors and windows in your home?

- perform everyday tasks such as making a sandwich, dialing a telephone, writing messages?

2. Is your child mentally ready? Does he:

- tell time?

- understand what "stranger" and "emergency" mean?

- recognize danger and know how to stay safe?

- solve small problems on his own but know when to get help?

3. Is your child socially ready? Does he:

- solve conflicts with brothers and sisters with little help from adults?

- talk easily to you about what happens at school and about his or her feelings?

- feel confident enough to contact another adult if a problem arises?

4. Is your child emotionally ready? Does he:

- feel confident and secure when alone?

- seem willing to stay alone?

- know how to handle fear, loneliness and boredom?

- know how to handle responsibility?