Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on April 8, 2002. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Child, parents prepare for time home alone
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The day when a child is finally ready to be left alone is a big moment for parent and child, but one that the law and child experts say should not be rushed.
According to the Mississippi Department of Human Services' Child Protective Services website, the age at which a child is old enough to be left alone depends on the maturity of the child. This means it is up to parents to decide when the child is mature enough to take on the responsibility of their own care for brief periods.
While the decision is left to parents, those who make poor decisions can be charged with neglect abuse, defined in part as a consistent lack of supervision.
Louise Davis, child and family development specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said in addition to knowing that a child is mature enough to be left alone, parents should consider the community they live in.
"If you live in a safe neighborhood that is supportive and stable, then your decision would probably be different from someone who lives in a less supportive area," Davis said. "Children should be responsible, and have clear decision-making skills and the willingness to accept responsibility before being left alone."
The child's safety is the primary concern when leaving a child unattended. Davis said children should never be left alone if there is any concern about potential danger.
"If the child is too young to make decisions or is unable to make good decisions and know where to go for help, then the child is too young to be alone," Davis said. "If you and your child both decide the child is ready to take on the responsibility, talk about what that responsibility entails."
Discuss what is a real emergency and when the child should call E911 instead of calling a parent or another adult. Post house rules and make sure the child is familiar with them. List phone numbers, including those of emergency services, by the telephone.
"Prepare a safety kit that the child keeps with them always," Davis said. "This safety kit should have the child's identification card, a list of important telephone numbers, correct change for phone calls and, depending on where they live, enough money for cab or bus fare."
Most communities have after-school educational options that are good places for youth to spend time before an adult is home. Sometimes a next-door neighbor is willing to be responsible for a child or will be on hand if there is a problem.
Davis recommended parents plan activities to keep the child occupied when home alone. These can include a snack, homework and age-appropriate chores. A routine is important, but be sure it avoids activities that require adult supervision.