Dear Abby, the letter begins. My almost 10-year-old daughter, "Amber," stays home one or two hours by herself after school until I return home from work. She has rules to go by; however, she has been known to break them. The letter-writer goes on to ask Abby for advice on how to break Amber of the habit of opening the door to strangers, which Abby obligingly provides?without commenting on the larger issue: Should Amber be home alone in the first place?
This letter-writer is not unique in her decision to leave her child home alone. Research reveals that almost 7 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 spend some time each week unsupervised.
Is leaving an elementary-aged child home alone a good idea? "It's very risky in today's culture," says marriage and family specialist David Ferreira. "Pre-adolescent boys in particular need adult influence," he adds, pointing out that he's currently counseling a 16-year-old boy who became addicted to pornography while spending unsupervised time on the Internet.
Besides safety issues, leaving kids home alone raises legal issues. Though laws vary from state to state, parents need to be aware that they can be held liable if their children are harmed or cause harm during their absence. For example, factors stated in Illinois law include the amount of time and conditions that a minor under 14 years old is left without supervision. Other legal considerations include: the condition of the location, weather conditions, the location and physical distance of the parent or guardian at the time the minor was left, accessibility of emergency telephone number, whether there was food available, or any other factor that would endanger the health and safety of the minor.
If you decide to leave your child alone, be sure the child is comfortable with the idea and exhibits mature and responsible behavior. Leave a telephone number where he can reach you, when you'll be back, and whom to call in case he gets scared or there is an emergency. Call a neighbor and ask if they can be "on call" until you return home.
The question of whether or not to leave your child home alone comes down to one fundamental issue: the child's safety. As one legal expert says, "If you're going to err, better to err on the side of safety."
Dos and Don'ts
Don't allow your child to play outside while you are gone.
Don't allow unlimited access to the TV, computer, or Internet.
Don't make a habit of leaving your child alone.
Do call home to confirm your child is there and briefly review the rules.
Do communicate clearly and specifically what you expect him to do (or not to do) during your absence.
Do inform a neighbor, friend, or relative that your child will be alone and encourage your child to call this person, if necessary.
Do educate your child on how to dial 911 and what to expect. Post your address and telephone number by the telephone for access if an emergency dispatcher needs this information. This is also important for babysitters.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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