Question: My daughter is 13 and we also have a 11-year-old son. We have always sent them to a summer program, but we are thinking about leaving them home alone for about six hours a day this summer while we work. They are very responsible kids. How can we be sure they are ready to be left alone?
Answer: Every kid matures at a different rate. Some kids at 13 are as responsible as 21-year-olds. Some 21-year-olds are as irresponsible as 11-year-olds. It all gets back to how well you know your child.
If children are going to be left alone for any period of time, they need to know where you are and how they can contact you.
You also must have some simple guidelines that make their being alone a safe period of time.
If the telephone is answered and it is someone the child does not know, he is not to give out any information about the parents not being home. You train kids to say, “They can’t come to the phone right now, but if you give me your name and number I will have them call you back right away.”
You would lay out basic ground rules, such as when mom and dad are gone, no one else can be in the home except for siblings.
I think it’s healthy to say, “You are not in charge of the other kids. Everybody is in charge of himself.”
Like all rewarding experiences, I think you express confidence to a kid. “We’re leaving and I want you to know I’m not fearing that things will go badly. You’re growing up, you are responsible and I know you can handle this.”
As kids handle responsibility well, guess what you do, parents? Give them more responsibility. That’s what the growing up process is all about.
Be aware of whether your children are afraid of being home alone. Most kids, especially at night, will become acutely aware of how noisy their usually silent home is. They hear every little noise, every little branch that brushes against the house.
If you feel your children are ready to stay home but they indicate that they are fearful, don’t leave them alone, no matter how old they are. If there is a trusted friend that they can have over, that is permissible.
Be aware of things that can happen while you are away.
I had a friend who came to me years ago. His kid was a really responsible 17-year-old. They were going away for the weekend and wanted to know if I thought it was OK to leave him. I told them he was a good kid and I sort of blessed the whole thing.
The kid didn’t have a party. He just invited a couple of buddies over. But they told their buddies, who told their buddies, and there were 200 cars there and they ruined the house.
When young people find out kids are home alone, all kinds of unwanted guests can show up in a hurry.
In your case, use your best judgment. Be in contact with your kids and have someone else nearby they can count on if they need someone. It could be a neighbor or relative or friend that they know they can call.
Make sure they know all about calling 911 in an emergency.
If you or they have doubts, hire a baby sitter. A lot of kids don’t want anyone to know they have a baby sitter, but they would really rather have someone there with them.
Dr. Kevin Leman is a Tucson psychologist and author of 28 best-selling books, including “Home Court Advantage.” E-mail him at whatsupdoc@tucson citizen.com. Photo by Tom Spitz Photography