Parents usually struggle with the decision of whether to leave their children home alone. Anxieties may stem from the desire to be good parents, from financial or business pressures or from the challenge of balancing work with family responsibilities. And children may be applying pressure, too.
Because there isn't one set of guidelines that will work for all families, parents should consider their child's age and level of maturity. A 12-year-old child may be responsible and ready to stay home alone, while another may not be ready at age 14. Family size and circumstances are factors, so is the character of the family's neighborhood.
For example, urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods offer different problems. Are neighbors nearby? Are they likely to be home during the time children would be on their own? Would they be willing to help in an emergency? Or share responsibilities? Are there other children in the neighborhood who might be good companions?
Parents who live in the same neighborhood but work different hours might consider developing a network to share supervisory responsibilities. For example, children might spend after-school hours on Monday with one family, on Thursday with another. Or, one parent might take neighborhood children to ball practice, while another arranges to pick them up.
Cooperative arrangements offer some real pluses, especially during spring and summer months when there are a number of activities, such as sports practices, swimming lessons and reading programs. Sharing responsibilities ensures safety opportunities for children, conserves time and energy and can relieve parents' anxiety. Sharing also helps families make the transition to the time when children can accept responsibility and feel comfortable handling time on their own.
Family size and timing are also considerations. Will the child be alone? In the company of brothers and sisters? Responsible for caring for younger brothers or sisters? Will a child be alone for a few hours, or expected to care for themselves for several hours? How will snacks and meals be handled? Will activities need to be limited?
When children say they're ``ready,'' parents should talk through ``what ifs?''
Decide how children will answer the phone; whether they will answer the door; what to do when a friend stops by unexpectedly; or how to respond, rather than react to an emergency. Children may never need to call 911, but they should know how to do it.
When both children and their parents feel comfortable with the idea, parents should consider leaving children home alone for short periods of time -- long enough to run an errand or attend a neighborhood meeting. Gradually extending time spent home alone can help children develop confidence and also ease the transition for parents.
-- Trudy Rice is county Extension agent in family and consumer sciences at K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County.