Most of us are familiar with the series of kid-friendly "Home Alone" movies in which a young boy is accidentally left behind when his family leaves town for vacation. He outsmarts burglars, protects his home or other people, and is dubbed a hero when the crooks are nabbed.
These happy-ending films don't mirror the fretting many of us do when we're questioning our children's readiness to be left home alone.
With the new school year looming, many parents of children 10 and older are likely debating this issue and wrestling with how soon, how long and under what circumstances. For some parents, the idea of leaving a young one home alone is daunting. Others are excited to see their child blossom and assume this type of independence.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that more than 40 percent of children nationwide are left home alone during the day and evening, but not overnight.
In Virginia, since no laws govern the ages at which a child is legally allowed to stay home alone, it's generally up to parents to decide.
However, don't just take this information and run with it. Determining when to leave your child alone should be a well-thought out decision, based on your child, your circumstances and a range of other factors.
Many experts say it's best not to leave a child younger than 10 home alone, while others recommend that children be no younger than 12. Most children 15 and older do just fine.
The gray area is that middle school age range of 11 to 14. Experts say that rather than simply considering the child's age, parents need to consider their child's overall maturity and ability to make sound judgments.
Whether you're considering leaving your child home for a brief run to the grocery store, during a two-hour social outing, or every day after school, put some plans in place that will give everyone a sense of security and confidence.
Use these questions as your guide:
- How does your child feel about staying home alone?
- Are there neighbors nearby who can assist your child in case of an emergency?
- Is there a lot of crime in your area?
- Does your child typically use good judgment for his or her age?
- Does your child show responsibility with current duties and tasks?
- Can your child be trusted to go straight home after school and follow other home-alone rules you set?
If you're comfortable with your answers and decide to move forward, map out strategies for success, such as the following:
- Make sure your child has memorized your number and the number of at least one nearby neighbor or emergency contact. Post the numbers in a prominent place in your home.
- Talk with your child about what do to in particular circumstances -- if a stranger comes to the door, if the child smells smoke, if someone calls and asks if an adult is home.
- If your child is coming home alone (or with siblings) after school, agree on a time for your child to call and check in with you. Let your child know you'll be calling throughout the afternoon.
- Set rules about whether the child can have friends over during your absence and what activities or spaces are off-limits. For example, are there parental controls on the TV? How will you monitor their Internet usage? Are alcohol and prescription medicine tucked away? Are there weapons in the home that need to be locked up?
- Prepare them for the unexpected by role-playing emergencies and how to handle them. Make sure younger children know how to dial 911, and discuss escape routes.
- Give them guidelines for watching young siblings and how to resolve disputes and other dilemmas as a team.
As you contemplate how and when to chart this course, start out small, with a 15to 30-minute errand that doesn't take you far from home. Gradually increase your time away and work through any issues that arise.
These tricky years of maintaining parental control while loosening the reins can be nerve-racking. But remind yourself that each new stage children experience gives you a chance to watch them transform into their own people.
You have the joy of guiding a large part of that journey.
Stacy Hawkins Adams is a Chesterfield County-based novelist, professional speaker and freelance writer. She's also a wife and mom, with a son and daughter ages 8 and 11. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.