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Heidi Sallee, MD

With summer fast approaching, working parents face the challenge of arranging care for their children. One issue is especially tricky – determining when an older child is “old enough” to spend time at home alone.

At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, pediatrician Heidi Sallee, MD, who specializes in adolescent medicine, notes that by about age 12, many children are capable of spending some time alone, but she adds that every child and family situation is different.

Dr. Sallee suggests that parents evaluate children very carefully before leaving them unsupervised, and to take steps ahead of time to help a youngster prepare for greater periods of independence.

Many factors come into consideration, but Dr. Sallee says foremost that parents should evaluate the cognitive or “thinking” ability of a child. Not all children by age 12 --or even older -- demonstrate this ability.

“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 says. “So 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 take cues from children themselves as to when a child is ready. Dr. Sallee notes that they all have different personalities and confidence levels. If a child is anxious about the prospect, that child indeed probably isn’t ready, she says.

Even if the child is confident, Dr. Sallee suggests starting slowly, perhaps leaving the child home while the parent runs an errand.

Of course a checklist is in order, especially for safety. Dr. Sallee says unsupervised children need to know to call 911 in an emergency. Ideally, they should be able to reach an adult quickly.

“If you live next door to a stay-at-home mom who is readily available to provide immediate adult supervision should something arise, that might mean you can leave your child home for a longer period and at a younger age,” Dr. Sallee says.

Other factors to be considered include whether one child or several siblings are to be home, perhaps with an older child in charge.

Sometimes siblings don’t get along, Dr. Sallee continues. She adds that it’s common that an older one isn’t able to exert authority over a little brother or sister.

“Many children just don’t get along well in the absence of their parents, and these are challenges that have to be considered and solutions found, such as hiring a baby sitter to help.”

Dr. Sallee suggests that parents also consider formal children’s classes in home safety.  Classes in baby-sitting can help because much of the content centers on safety.      

Dr. Sallee relates that two of her children benefited from classes in baby sitting, putting into practice what they had learned when babysitting and faced with a “kitchen incident.”

“There was more smoke than fire,” Dr. Sallee said. “But my girls quickly got everyone out of the house, called 911, and later felt proud that they knew just what to do.”

Dr. Sallee also says to set parameters for children staying home unsupervised. Considerations include whether the friends may visit, and guidelines for interacting with any strangers who might knock on the door or call on the phone.

Dr. Sallee notes that working parents also should consider how the child alone will spend his or her time.

“Even if children are capable of spending a day alone, ideally they should have planned activities other than watching television,” Dr. Sallee says. She adds that it may be a good idea to hire a responsible older teen or college student – as the family’s budget allows – to take the child to activities.

And Dr. Sallee suggests that parents have contingency plans, in case being left 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.’ ”

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