GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The back-to-school season means parents also need to figure out child care or decide if their kids are ready to be home alone.
“It’s a big decision to have your child stay at home alone. It takes a lot of planning and preparation in order to make sure that, first of all, they’re mature enough and that they know that they’re responsible enough that if there is an emergency, (they know) exactly what they should do,” Breeze Ettl, executive director for the American Red Cross of West Michigan, said.
Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist with Spectrum Health, said a child can gain confidence in being left home alone when it happens at the right time.
“It provides them a sense of confidence and security. It gives them that opportunity to become a little bit more independent, but we want to set them up for success,” Cadieux said.
She said doing it too soon can make them fearful and cause them to not want to do it again.
“Instead we want to go at the pace that is appropriate for our child so we can set them up to be successful,” Cadieux said.
DECIDING IF YOUR CHILD IS READY
WHAT A CHILD SHOULD KNOW
“There isn’t a specific age that a child is automatically ready to be home alone,” Cadieux said.
She recommended starting to consider whether it’s OK for children to stay home by making sure they know things like their parents’ names, their phone numbers and their address. Parents also need to think about what a child needs to know about the house.
“Maybe knowing either they can’t use the oven or how to use the stove properly, knowing not to open the door to strangers, knowing how to handle an emergency and who to contact,” Cadieux said. “Is it going to be OK for my child to go outside while a parent is not at home or do they need to stay inside?”
She said parents need to feel comfortable knowing that their child will abide by the rules they’ve set in place.
Another thing to consider is how mature the child is and if he or she can manage independently.
“If they’re hungry or they’re thirsty, are they able to go get those needs met? Are they doing OK playing independently and doing activities on their own? Or do they really nervous about being alone?” she said. “Really gauging where your child is at developmentally can be really important in determining if they are ready to do this.”
With a family with multiple children, Cadieux said it’s important to remember that each child is different and they may not all be ready to stay home alone at the same age.
“…And that’s OK. We all have our own unique developmental paths and we don’t have to develop the same way. Even if one sibling is ready and another isn’t, you’ll get there,” she said. “And you don’t want to compare your child to the other kids in the neighborhood.”
LAWS REGARDING STAYING HOME ALONE
Kent County Sheriff’s Department’s Sgt. Eric Brunner said there are no laws in Michigan that specifically address an age requirement before a child can stay home alone. The state does have information on its website for parents.
STAYING HOME ALONE
CREATING A LIST OF NEED-TO-KNOW INFORMATION
In the event of an emergency, a child needs to have quick access to information that he or she might not know automatically. Cadieux recommends making a list.
“For example, making sure that they have contact information for both parents but also emergency contacts for either neighbors or other people that are close by. If they can’t get ahold of a parent, what do they do?” she said.
Before staying home alone for the first time, a child needs to know when it’s time to call 911 and what makes that circumstance different than calling a parent or emergency contact.
Children should also know where parents are and what they will be doing as well as what they should be doing while their parents are gone.
“So that the child knows whether or not, ‘Am I allowed to go outside and play? If my neighbor friend comes over, can I let them in? Can I go outside and play with them?’ Going through some of those pieces to really help the child know exactly what’s expected so that there isn’t going to be a lot of questions,” Cadieux said.
FIRST TIME ALONE
“Those first few times would be pretty short,” Cadieux said. “So maybe like a five to 15-minute trip around the block or to the store real quick just to pick up some milk or something like that, but make it fairly short.”
This allows parents to see how their child manages the short time home alone before extending it.
“Part of this is helping (children) to feel comfortable with being home alone but also making sure that they understand some of the things that they need to do,” Cadieux said.
She recommend reviewing how a child is doing staying home alone after the first few times.
“How did this go? What went well or what didn’t go well? Or what questions came up? Because you’re going to have things that came up that you can’t prepare for that you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I didn’t think about if a package gets delivered, what are you supposed to do? Can I leave the package on the porch or do I open the door and grab it as soon as the delivery person leaves?'” she said.
STAYING HOME ALONE WITH SIBLINGS
For a child with siblings, Cadieux said it comes down to “making sure that the older sibling has those skills to manage the younger children.” This includes knowing how to keep the younger siblings safe and not getting into things that are going to be harmful. Cadieux recommended having a child take a first aid class to learn how to administer basic first aid and how to deal with more significant emergencies.
Ettl said the American Red Cross offers online babysitting classes. The class is designed for children ages 11 and older. Over six interactive modules, the class will cover how to care for infants and children, how to stay safe, what to do in an emergency and more. It costs $45.
The Red Cross offers resources for parents such as Prepare with Pedro and the Pillowcase Project, Ettl said.
Prepare with Pedro is a 30- to 45-minute program for children ages 4 to 8 that teaches them to “BE PREPARED and TAKE ACTION for either home fires or a local hazard” in age-appropriate lessons. Topics that are covered in the various lessons include home fire, going to a shelter, washing your hands, tornadoes, creating an emergency contact card, and more.
The Pillowcase Project is a 40- to 60-minute program that teaches children in grades three to five about personal and family preparedness as well as safety skills, local hazards and basic coping skills.