Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:
Independence doesn’t just happen overnight. Even if you don’t expect to leave your child home alone, or to be a latch-key kid, emergencies do happen and best-laid plans can go awry! So that you and your child are prepared and don’t feel like prisoners in your own home, you need to be able to leave and your child needs to be able to stay home alone when necessary. Your child needs to know what the ground rules are, how to stay safe and not burn down the house in your absence, and not to use his time alone downloading porn on your computer.
Here’s a 5-Minute Courage Workout by age range and your assessment of your child’s level of maturity.
It needs to be said that there are only two states in the U.S. that have specific age-based “Home Alone” laws. Other states have age recommendations—they vary from eight to twelve years-old—but for the most part U.S. parents are asked to take responsibility in assessing their child’s level of maturity. Canada, on the other hand, is more specific and has a law that reads: Children under 12 years of age cannot be left at home alone or care for younger children. (That said, please read our reader’s comment below for more information and weblinks to Canada’s guidelines. It appears that there is some discrepancy between provinces with the home alone age range between 10-12 years of age, please read this link for more information).
We hope that no matter which country you live in, which borough, county or province, that you are aware of the laws or customary practice with regards to leaving children home alone.
- Toddler: once your child is mobile and more confident to be left alone for a moment, play a 5-minute game of “Hide and Seek”. Hide yourself in an easily accessible place and call your child to come find you, delight in their ability to find you and the pleasure that comes from being reunited. Then, teach your child to find a safe place to hide nearby and allowing for a few moments of suspense by counting to 10, go find them in their hiding place. Make sure they know to call out if they want to be found before you actually find them; it’s an exercise in using their voice to be heard, to be powerful, and to be safe.
- Preschooler: keep playing “Hide and Seek”. Now you can add flashlights, secret nooks and crannies in the house, and a favorite teddy to join in the fun and offer comfort whilst waiting in secret hiding places for Mommy or Daddy to find them. Pretend to be stumped yourself, call out for hints about whether you are “hot” or “cold”—closer or father—from finding them. They will be reassured and tickled to hear you on a loving quest to reunite yourself with them. See if they can stay hidden for the full 5 minutes?! Now that your child has lots of practice with this game, you can remind them when you are in another room preparing a meal, for example, and they want you to join them in play that having time to play quietly on our own can be special just like “Hide and Seek”. Make sure they have some activity to while away the time when you are busy. Try not using TV or a video to distract them during this time. Let them know that you will call them or find them once you are done doing your chore or done having your own quiet time. Leave them with a timer (start with 5 mins. and work your way up to 15) to know how close the sand is to finishing it’s journey or how soon the bell will ring.
- Early elementary student: begin the conversation about “When you are old enough to be on your own at home….” Independence should be something to look forward to, something earned, and to be proud of. Now is the time to start short periods of separation. For example, while you go down to the lobby to get the mail from the mail box, when you go downstairs to put on a load of laundry, or when you go down the block to borrow a cup of sugar (do people still do this? We hope so!) This is the stage you begin teaching “home alone ground rules”. These will be different for every family depending on the context of your home and the personality of your child. That said, we highly recommend spending 5 minutes reviewing how you want your child to handle phone calls and use the caller ID, knocks on the door, TV or computer access, dial 911. Depending on your family circumstances, there may be some specific “What if” scenarios you will want to rehearse with your child (e.g. leaving with another relative and/or non-custodial parent who happens to stop by). Post a list of emergency contacts and discuss approved snacks and activities to occupy themselves with in your absence.
- Upper elementary student or ‘tween: by this age, children are likely comfortable being left for longer periods on their own when you run a short errand in the neighborhood, can stay on their own with a friend or older sibling, or at least can leave you to do your work, finish a phone call, or soak in the bath. Hopefully, they are also beginning to ask for more time on their own; and to talk excitedly about when they will be old enough to hang with a friend when you go grocery shopping, to be on their own when you drop their sibling off at rowing practice, and eventually to spend an evening on their own when you go out on a date! The next time you know you will need to leave your child on their own, time them in advance what day/time/how long you will be gone, remind them several times as the date gets closer. Ask them to spend 5 minutes making a list of what chores or homework they can do while you are out, what favorite snacks/meal they may want, and what they will do that’s fun/special once they’ve completed the things on their list (e.g. watching a movie, playing a game, reading a book, listening to an audio book, calling/texting a friend).
- High schooler or teen: we can safely assume that your teen now has plenty of practice with being alone, but make sure he/she has time to themselves in the house on their own. There is nothing quite as relaxing, freedom-granting, confidence-building, or trust-boosting as being given the keys to the castle! Be sure to take 5 minutes to review who is allowed over while you are out, agree on a time you or they may call to check in if you are out late or overnight, what they need to do before they leave to go out in your absence, and how to lock up.
Want more workouts? Here’s our 5-Minute Courage Workout: A Fate Worse Than Death (on public speaking) How about our 5-Minute Courage Workout: It’s a Dog Eat Dog World! (on how to be safe around dogs.) Does your child have trouble taking responsibility for accidents? Try the 5-Minute Courage Workout: Saying I’m Sorry. Our most popular workout that gets shared and tweeted is our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Navigating the Neighborhood (teaching your child how to learn to find his or her way around.) Try the 5-Minute Courage Workout: Talking Dirty if getting a dirty is a problem (for you or your child!)