This article originally appeared in the May 19, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Am I old enough to stay home alone this summer?”
As the school year comes to a close, many parents across the St. Louis region are confronted with this request, a question that causes more summertime stress than a recital of “Are we there yet?”
There isn’t a catch-all formula for knowing when children are old enough to stay home alone. Children mature at different rates, so the magic age for an older child may be different for a younger sibling.
By 12 years, many children are capable of spending some time alone, but every child and family situation is different. Some states may regulate how old a child must be before staying home alone. In Missouri, there is no legal age limit; in Illinois, a child must be 14 years old.
Parents should evaluate many different factors before deciding to skip a babysitter for the summer, says Dr. Heidi Sallee, a pediatrician experienced in adolescent issues at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.
In particular, parents should consider a child’s ability to think ahead and understand consequences of actions. Not all children demonstrate this ability even at age 12 or older.
“A lot of kids don’t have the ability to look forward and say, ‘If I do this, what will that lead to?’” Dr. Sallee said. “It depends on the child’s cognitive ability and developmental stage as to whether the child can be left alone for even a short duration.”
Parents can also take cues from their children themselves to help determine if a child is ready to be home alone. Children have different personalities and levels of confidence. If a child is anxious about the possibility of spending time home alone, the child is probably not ready for this big step. Even for confident children, it is a good idea to start slowly, by leaving the child home alone for a short period of time while a parent runs an errand.
Children should know the rules of basic safety when staying home alone. Unsupervised kids should have quick access to an adult if needed and know how to call 911 in an emergency. They should also have guidelines for interacting with any strangers who might knock on the door or call on the phone. Understanding the house rules for unsupervised children is important, too. Parents should discuss whether friends are allowed to visit without parents home and whether kids have permission to use the stove.
Working parents should think about how a child will spend his or her time alone before deciding that children are old enough to stay home. A child may be thrilled with the newfound lack of structure, but staying home alone should not be an excuse to veg out for three months.
“Even if children are capable of spending a day alone, ideally they should have planned activities other than watching television,” Dr. Sallee said.
As parents evaluate whether their child might be old enough this year, it’s important to have a backup plan, in case being left home alone for the first time doesn’t work out.
“Sometimes we try things, and it’s okay to say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll try this again next summer,’” Dr. Sallee said.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.