How old is old enough to stay home alone? The answer might not be obvious
FARGO — As the final bell rings for the 2017-18 school year, parents and children are looking for more freedom.
Parental concerns about safety often trump kids' desire to care for themselves. But during the summer, other economic factors might persuade parents to let their children stay home alone, potentially saving thousands of dollars on child care.
"At a certain age, children start pestering their parents about staying home by themselves," says Marlys Baker, child protection services administrator for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. "Especially if their friends are staying home alone, then they will want to as well."
Besides the child's desire to gain more independence, staying at home alone can alleviate economic pressures. According to ndchildcare.org, annual child care costs can range from $7,000 to $15,000, depending on the type of facility and age of the kid.
"If a child can stay at home alone, then the overall household income can increase," Baker says.
Whatever the motivation, it isn't necessarily an easy task to achieve. Baker says the child and parent both need to prepare and follow guidelines to make it work.
"There is no state law in North Dakota that specifies the age a child can stay home alone or babysit another child," Baker says. However, county agencies have researched and created statewide guidelines that help social service administrators to assess situations.
Consider first the age of the child when making rules about self-care:
• Infants and toddlers, 0 to 4 years old: Infants or toddlers shouldn't be left alone. They also require care and supervision outside. Other children cannot care for toddlers or newborns.
• 5 to 8: During this age range, children cannot be left alone, but can play outside unattended as the playground or yard is within visual sight or hearing distance.
• 9: During daytime hours, 9-year-olds may stay home alone for less than two hours. Children at this age also may play outside without supervision for that same amount of time. Baker advises adult caregivers, such as a parent or neighbor, be on-call and easily accessible.
• 10 to 14: At this age, kids can be home alone for more than two hours as long as it's during the daytime. They can also be outside or at the playground unsupervised. A 12-year-old can start to provide care for other children if they are responsible and mature, but an adult should still be easily reachable if help is needed.
• Teenagers at least 15: A teenager should be able to stay at home alone during the day or night. Parents should asses their child's level of maturity before letting them stay alone overnight.
Although it may seem like an easy-to-follow benchmark, Baker says age is not the only factor parents should consider when making their decision.
Parents also need to think about a child's maturity level, problem-solving skills and knowledge of what to do in an emergency. Baker says children should know who to contact if an emergency happens and they cannot reach their parents.
"Kids need to know if and when they should answer a knock at the door," she says. "For example, they shouldn't be afraid if the policeman comes to the door because they are afraid of getting in trouble."
In Baker's experience, some children might feel extreme stress or become scared during inclement weather or if they hear sirens. She says it's important that parents honestly reflect on the knowledge of their own child.
"Consider if you ask your child to clean their room and then you come back in hour and it's not clean," she says. "If they aren't ready to be responsible for their room in that short amount of time, they might not be ready to stay at home alone."
Because every child is different, Baker says there are no strict laws about when children are able to stay at home alone. Still, county social service agencies have guidelines they use when assessing reports of children who may be inadequately supervised.
"I just really think parents should talk with their child, but also use their judgement when making this decision," Baker says. "Oftentimes, children are aware of the family's financial troubles and they will lie sometimes if they want to please their parents and tell them what they want to hear. All children vary in development, so it's not an easy decision."
Making it work
Managing the kids' summer schedules can be difficult, so it's important to have conversations about how and when they will be able to care for themselves. Baker recommends starting these talks early and often.
"Communication also plays an important role in determining a child's ability to stay home alone," said Sandy Tibke, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota. "Parents should simply ask their child about their feelings, and if there is any hesitation, parents may want to wait until their child is more prepared. Never assume your child is ready just because he or she is 12 or 13 years old."
Baker also recommends that parents start small and see how the child will do when left alone to fill up the car with gas or during a quick grocery-shopping trip.
"Parents should just try to think about any eventuality that may happen," she says. "I encourage parents not only to talk to their children about safe home alone strategies, but to test their knowledge by asking questions like, 'What would you do if a stranger knocks at the door?'"
Baker also recommends asking the following questions:
• What do you do if friends come over and break the rules in our house?
• How do you feel about staying home alone?
• Where would you look if you needed safety equipment?
• Who would you call first in an emergency situation? Who would you call second?
After evaluating a child's answers, Baker says parents also need to outline specific rules, including the appliances and electronics children can and cannot use.
"I just think parents have more and more to think about with the internet and increasing access," Baker says.
Decide if and when children can use things like the microwave or stove, and restrict certain websites. Making these rules clear before a child is alone could help ensure their safety from a variety of threats.
More information about guidelines and best practices can be found at www.nd.gov/dhs/info/pubs/family.html.