RIDGE, Md. – At some point during the school year and summer, you may begin to consider the possibility of having your children care for themselves throughout the day. 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.
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, they should indicate a desire and willingness to stay alone. In addition, they 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. Ask yourself these questions to help you reach your decision: Does your child want to stay alone? Can your child use the telephone? Can your child lock and unlock the door properly? Can your child follow directions? Does your child know what to do in an emergency?
It’s very important to remember to keep all personal protection weapons (handguns, long guns, mace, knives, etc.) and potential poisons (cleaning agents, medication, etc.) locked up and away from your child’s reach. Accidents can, and will happen. 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
• Be sure you have a Family Emergency / Fire Escape Plan in place
• Basic first aid techniques
• What to do during severe storms
• Appropriate and inappropriate reasons for calling parents or other adults for help
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 they adjust to the situation. During this time, talk frequently with your child about their feelings and periodically review house rules and safety information with them. 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?
Maryland law defines a neglected minor, in part, as “the intentional failure to provide necessary assistance and resources for the physical needs or mental health of a minor that creates a substantial risk of harm to the minor’s physical health or a substantial risk of mental injury to the minor.” In Maryland, a child under the age of 8 years may not be left unattended at home, at school, or in a car. If a parent or guardian needs to leave a child who is younger than 8 years old, the parent or guardian must ensure that a reliable person, who is at least 13 years old will stay to protect the child.
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.