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At some point during the school years, parents begin to consider the possibility of having children care for themselves before or after school rather than being cared for by others. Self-care can be a rewarding experience for children who are ready for it. It can help them develop independence and responsibility and can give them confidence in their own abilities. However, if the child is not ready, self-care can be frightening and potentially dangerous situation.

How Can You Tell If Your Child Is Ready?

Unfortunately there is not magic age at which children develop the maturity and good sense needed to stay alone. However, there are some signs that show your child may be ready. First, your child should indicate a desire and willingness to stay alone. Children who are easily frightened or who express an unwillingness to stay alone are probably not ready for this responsibility. In addition, your child should be showing signs of accepting responsibility and being aware of the needs of others and should be able to consider alternatives and make decisions independently. Children who are able to get ready for school on time, solve problems on their own, complete homework and household chores with a minimum of supervision, remember to tell you where they are going and when they will be back are demonstrating some of the skills they need to care for themselves. For many children these abilities being to appear between 10-12 years. Finally, your child should be able to talk easily with you about interests and concerns. Good parent-child communication is needed to ensure that any fears or problems that arise because of staying alone can be quickly discussed and dealt with.

If you child is showing such signs, you may want to consider self-care. However, several other factors must also enter into your decision.

These are:
  • The neighborhood in which you live
  • The availability of adults nearby
  • How long your child will be alone.

If your neighborhood is unsafe, if there are not adults nearby to call in case of emergency, or if your child must remain alone for a very long time, it is best to continue to use some form of child care even in your child seems ready to stay alone.

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Preparing Your Child To Stay Alone

If you and your child agree that self-care is appropriate, the next step is providing your child with the knowledge and training needed for this new responsibility.

Children who stay alone need to know how to react in situations such as:
  • Being locked out
  • Being afraid
  • Being bored
  • Being lonely
  • Arguments with brothers and sisters
House rules about:
  • Leaving the house
  • Having friends in
  • Cooking and use of kitchen equipment
  • Appropriate snacks and meals
  • Talking with friends on the phone
  • Duties to be completed while home alone
Children who stay alone need to have good telephone skills:
  • A list of emergency numbers
  • Knowledge of what to say in an emergency situation
  • How to respond if someone calls
  • Understanding of appropriate and inappropriate reasons for calling parents or other adults for help
Good personal safety skills:
  • How to answer the door when alone
  • How to lock and unlock doors and windows
  • What to do if approached by a stranger on the way home
  • What to do if they think someone is in the house when they get home
  • What to do if someone touches them inappropriately
Good home safety skills:
  • Kitchen safety ( use of appliances, knives, and tools )
  • What to do if they smell smoke or gas or in the event of a fire
  • What to do during severe storms
  • Basic first aid techniques and how to know when to get help

Providing your children with this knowledge gives them confidence in their abilities and will help them deal with any emergencies that may arise. When teaching your children, give information gradually rather than all at once. Too much information at one time is difficult to remember. Present your children with a number of situations and have them act out their responses. For example, pretend you are a stranger at the door asking to use the phone to call a tow truck, and then pretend you are a salesman wanting to leave some free samples. Giving many examples and having your children actually respond to the situation will help them respond quickly and flexibly if the situation actually occurs when they are alone. Simply telling them the information is rarely effective. It is quickly forgotten.

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Establishing a Trial Period

After you have helped your child acquire the skills and knowledge needed to stay alone, set up a trial period of self-care in order to see how your child adjusts to the situation. Initially presenting it as a temporary arrangement lets children know they can choose not to continue if they are uncomfortable staying alone and also allows parents to more easily end the arrangement if they feel the child is unable to handle the situation.

Throughout the trial period, and afterwards, if you continue the arrangement, talk frequently with your child about his or her feelings. This will allow you to deal with problems quickly and will help you remain close to your child. Also, periodically review your house rules and safety information with your child. Children forget easily-especially if the information is seldom used. However, this infrequently-used knowledge-such as what to do in case of a fire or other emergency-may one day be critical to your child's safety.

Children who are mentally and emotionally ready to stay alone, who have been taught the skills and knowledge needed to deal with this new responsibility, and who are able to talk easily with their parents about fears or concerns that may arise, can gain much from the opportunity to care for themselves.

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When Is It Legal To Leave Children Alone?

When thinking about leaving children alone, whether for a short or long time, it is important for parents to consider the risks involved. There are many potential risks to children that must be considered. However, it is important to realize that there can be risks for parents as well. Parents in all states are legally responsible for their children's welfare until they reach adulthood. Part of caring for children is providing adequate supervision. Under some circumstances a parent can be charged with neglect for leaving children unattended.

The laws of Illinois do not sent a specific age after which a child legally can stay alone. Unfortunately, age is not a very good indicator of a child's maturity level. Some very mature 10-year-olds may be ready for self-care. Some 15-year-olds may still not be ready. For example, it is inappropriate to leave a 15-year-old alone if the teen is chemically dependent, has emotional problems, or is prone to vandalism or other destructive or illegal acts. Whenever you begin to consider self-care for your child, you should carefully questions your child's readiness for more independence. You should also know how child-protection investigators determine whether there is child neglect. Basically, investigators ask three main questions to determine whether a parent or legal guardian is neglecting a child by not providing adequate supervision.

Question #1

How mature is the child?

Investigators will measure the child's maturity level by asking:
  • Is the child physically capable of taking care of and protecting himself or herself?
  • Is the child mentally capable of recognizing and avoiding danger and making sound decisions?
  • Is the child emotionally ready to be alone? Will she or he feel confident and secure or feel afraid, lonely, or bored?
  • Does the child know what to do and who to call if a problem or emergency arises?
  • Does the child have any special physical, emotional, or behavioral problems that make it unwise to leave her or him alone?

Question #2

Who is responsible for the child?

If parents have not left the child in the care of another, investigators will ask:
  • Where are the parents?
  • Can the parents get home quickly if needed?
  • Can the parents be reached by phone?
  • Do the children know where the parents are and how to reach them?

If parents have left someone else in charge, investigators will ask whether that person is mature enough to provide good supervision and to protect the child. They will want to know information about the caretaker that is similar to that requested in Question #1. Parents should remember that a child who can take care of herself or himself may not be ready to take care of younger children. Legally it may be fine to leave a mature 11 year-old alone; but to leave that child in charge of a toddler, preschooler, or kindergartner may be considered child neglect. Younger children often need more care than an 11-year-old can give. And if an emergency comes up, the 11-year-old might not be able to keep everyone safe.

Question #3

What is the situation?

What is appropriate under some circumstances may be considered child neglect under other circumstances. Investigators will ask:
  • When and for how long are the children left alone?
  • Have parents arranged with nearby adults to be available in case a problem arises?
  • Is there any family history of child abuse or neglect?

The welfare of the child is the primary concern of investigators. If they determine that child neglect has occurred, the Department of Children and Family Services will talk with the family and work out a more acceptable situation. The solution may involve a more acceptable situation. The solution may involve a simple promise on the part of the parents not to leave the children alone. Or the department may help the family locate child-care services for some or all of the children currently alone. The department is not trying to punish the parents or the family, but wants to make sure the children are safe and cared for properly.

As you can see, parents need to think carefully about may things before leaving their children alone. And this is important even if you only leave your child alone occasionally. Putting children in situations they can handle can help teach them independence and responsibility. But asking too much too soon can be a frightening and potentially dangerous situation- for both the child and the parent.

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