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SAFETY TIPS FOR KIDS STAYING HOME ALONE

We are back in the swing of fall schedules, which might leave many parents wondering “At what age can I leave my kids home alone?” and “How do I make sure I do it safely?”

When can I leave my school-aged kid home without an adult? Kids-home-alone_724x483-(2).png

When it comes to choosing the right age to leave your child at home alone, the number of candles on their birthday cake isn’t necessarily the best guide. Both Washington and Oregon use age 10 as the minimum – for Washington, it’s a guideline; for Oregon, it’s a state law. However, your child may not have the maturity, judgment and confidence to be home alone until much later. Strange noises, fear of burglars and worries about what to do in an emergency can leave many tweens  and teens counting the hours until Mom or Dad return.

How can I tell if my child is ready to stay home alone?

Look for signs your child truly is ready for more independence. Beyond them simply telling you that they’d rather stay home than accompany you on an errand or have a babysitter, ask yourself, can they…

  • Manage basic self-care, like morning and bedtime routines and preparing their own simple meals and snacks?
  • Find safe, healthy ways to occupy their time without relying on you to direct them?
  • Handle homework and pet-care chores without being reminded or closely supervised?
  • Reliably practice household safety routines like locking the door behind them and keeping the garage door shut?
  • Ask for help from a trusted adult neighbor in an emergency, like accidentally locking themselves out of the house?
  • Understand and stick to rules about what’s OK to do while you’re gone?

Staying home alone shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition. Start small, perhaps a 30-minute daytime trip to the store. Evaluate how it goes. Did they feel nervous while you were gone? Did they repeatedly call you while you were away? Did they spend their time doing something safe, enjoyable and productive, or did they anxiously keep an eye on the door?

If all went well, you can gradually lengthen the time you spend away and, eventually, extend it to include evenings after sunset.

How can I prepare my child to stay home alone?

You can help ensure your child’s home-alone success when you prepare them with these confidence-building, peace-of-mind steps:

  • Talk safety, not stranger danger. Staying home alone is likely safer now than it was when you were a kid. That’s because with cell phones and security cameras, “alone” is a lot less alone than it used to be. Instead of talking about stranger danger, talk about how safe kids act with people they don’t know, whether in person, online or on the phone.

RELATED: Better than talking about ‘stranger danger’ (missingkids.org)

  • Make friends with your security system. Besides keeping the door locked, kids should know how to arm and disarm the alarm system and use its “stay” feature. You also may want to point out the police, fire and medical buttons that, in a real emergency, would bring help with one push. Make the alarm a regular part of life, just another appliance like the microwave or refrigerator. Alternately, if you use a wifi-based home monitor system like Google Nest or Ring, make sure they are comfortable with using its features and that all homeowners and/or guardians are receiving alerts on their mobile devices.

 

  • Remind kids they aren’t watchdogs. If kids come home to find the door ajar or see a broken window (or any sign of a possible break-in), they should turn around and go to a neighbor’s house where they call you or the police. If they hear a strange noise outside, they don’t need to investigate like you might. It’s fine to just let a noise be a noise.
  • Show them how to handle mini-emergencies. “Telling” about emergencies leaves room for worry. “Showing” gives practice and confidence. Role play and teach kids to take control of mini-emergencies like these. For example, your child:
    • Accidentally breaks a glass, and their finger is bleeding a little. Show them how to open and put on a bandage.
    • Notices a leak under the sink. Tell them to turn off the faucet, stop using that sink until an adult gets home and put down towels to soak up the water.
    • Scorches a grilled cheese sandwich. Tell them to turn off the stove. Using a potholder so they don’t burn their hand, lift the pan (smoking sandwich still in it) off the burner, and put it in the sink. Turn on the stove fan and open a window slightly to air out the smell. Once the pan cools off, they can fill it with water to start unsticking the mess.
  • Tell them how to get out in a big emergency. Kids should feel confident leaving the house if they smell natural gas or the smoke or carbon monoxide alarm goes off. Practice going next door, where they should first call the fire department, then you. Remind kids that once they’re out, they shouldn’t go back in unless you or a firefighter tells them it’s safe. (Be sure to keep detector batteries fresh to ensure they work when needed, but don’t chirp or give false alarms caused by low batteries.)

Focus on kitchen safety for home-alone kids

Not only is the kitchen the one place your child is guaranteed to spend time when they’re home alone, but it also ranks as the second most dangerous room in the house (right after bathrooms, notorious for slip-and-falls). For kids, the danger comes from a combination of curiosity and inexperience in trying to concoct afterschool snacks.

Make sure your child understands to never:

  • Climb shelves or counters to reach things. You may need to rearrange the pantry to make sure kid-friendly food like cereal and crackers are kept within safe, easy reach.
  • Walk away with something on the burner (assuming they’re allowed to use the stove). Forgetting something on the stove is the No. 1 cause of kitchen fires. Also, make sure pot handles are always pointed inward so they can’t be bumped and send hot liquid flying.
  • Throw water on a grease fire. Instead, smother the flames by covering it with a pot lid or sliding a cookie sheet over it. Or use a fire extinguisher.

 

  • Lay a towel on the stove. It could catch fire from a hot burner.
  • Try to catch a dropped knife. Step back and let it fall. Better to poke a hole in the hardwood floor than your hand or foot!
  • Hold food in your hand while you’re cutting. Use a cutting board and place the food flat-side down (or make a cut to create a flat side) to improve stability.
  • Put anything metallic in the microwave (unless it’s a frozen food crisper sleeve that’s designed to go in). If something causes arcs or sparks, turn off the microwave immediately.

Celebrate and reward your child’s growing independence

A final thought: Consider appointing your child their own babysitter. When you get home, ask how the “babysitter” did. Homework done? Chores finished? Messes cleaned up?

If the answer is yes, pay the babysitter with cash, a treat, extra screen time or other reward. Done right and in moderation, home-alone time can build your child’s confidence and have them begging to be left in charge!

 

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