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 a frightening and potentially dangerous situation.
When is it legal to leave children alone?
When thinking about leaving children alone, whether for a short time or long time, it is important for parents to consider all the risks involved. There are many potential risks to children that need to be considered. It is also important to understand that parents and other persons responsible for a minor’s welfare also face risks.
Parents 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 children may also be removed from their home and placed into the state’s care for their protection, until a judge decides that the home is safe for the children to return to.
Illinois law defines a neglected minor, in part, as “any minor under the age of 14 years whose parent or other person responsible for the minor’s welfare leaves the minor without supervision for an unreasonable period of time without regard for the mental or physical health, safety or welfare of that minor.”
Juvenile Court Act, 705 ILCS 405/2-3(1)(d)
How can you tell if your child is ready?
Unfortunately, there is no 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.
- Desire – be the first one to indicate a desire and willingness to stay alone. Children who are easily frightened or express an unwillingness to stay alone are probably not ready for this responsibility.
- Responsible – be showing signs of accepting the responsibility and being aware of the needs of others.
- Makes Choices – be able to consider alternatives and make decisions independently.
- Communicates Openly – 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.
Children who can 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 begin to appear between the ages of 10 – 12.
If your child is showing such signs, you may want to consider self-care. However, several other factors must also enter your decision:
- Safety – the neighborhood in which you live
- Help – the availability of adults nearby
- Time – how long your child will be alone.
If your neighborhood is unsafe, if there are no 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 if your child seems ready to stay alone.
Preparing your child to stay alone
The following information is from the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services publication “Preparing Children 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
Know house rules about:
- leaving the house
- having friends over
- 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
- 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 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 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 discussing the issues with your children, give information gradually rather than all at once. Too much information at a time is difficult to remember. Present your children with several situations and have them act out their responses.
How long can a child be left alone?
What is appropriate under certain circumstances may be considered child neglect in other circumstances.
While recognizing that many factors may apply, Illinois law lists 15 specific factors to be considered when deciding whether a child has been left alone for an unreasonable period.
Establish 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 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 allow parents to end the arrangement more easily if they feel the child is unable to handle the situation.
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.
Putting the child’s best interest first
Parents and other persons responsible for a minor’s welfare must think carefully about many things before leaving their children alone. This is important, even if a child is left alone only occasionally or for short periods of time.
If you always put the child’s best interests first, you will be making decisions that will benefit your child. When children are placed in situations of independence that they can handle successfully, it can help them learn responsibility. However, asking too much too soon can produce frightening and potentially dangerous consequences for both the child and the parent.
Click above for a printable Self-Care Checklist to help you evaluate if your child is ready to stay home alone. It covers many of the discussion items from above.
Click above for a printable Important Phone Numbers list to have at home for a caregiver or for your child doing self-care. Use the list to record your own emergency numbers and vital information needed to know when calling for help.