At some point during the school years, you may begin to consider the possibility of having your children care for themselves before or after school. 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 your child is not ready, self-care can be a frightening and potentially dangerous situation.
How can I tell if my 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. First, he should indicate a desire and willingness to stay alone. In addition, he should be showing signs of accepting the responsibility and being aware of the needs of others and should be able to consider alternatives and make decisions independently.
It is also important to consider the neighborhood in which you live, the availability of adults nearby and 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.
Children who stay alone need to know how to react in situations including:
- What to do or say if someone calls or comes to the door;
- 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;
- 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
- Appropriate and inappropriate reasons for calling parents or other adults for help.
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 he adjusts to the situation. During this time, talk frequently with your child about his or her feelings and periodically review 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.
When is it legal to leave children alone?
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.”
When thinking about leaving your children alone, whether for a short or long time, it is important for you to consider all the risks involved. What is appropriate under certain circumstances may be considered child neglect in other circumstances. You are legally responsible for your child’s welfare until she reaches adulthood. Part of caring for your children is providing adequate supervision. Under some circumstances you can be charged with neglect for leaving children unattended.
For more information, read the DCFS publication Preparing Children to Stay Home Alone
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