While students are jumping up and down at the announcement of a snow day, the day off of school leaves parents scrambling to figure out what to do with them. Most grown-ups don’t have the luxury of a snow day. I know that when that cancellation call comes at 5:10 a.m., my jealousy sets in and I’m left wondering why I didn’t become a perpetual student.
Sometimes, the anticipation of a snow event gives parents time to plan ahead. Yet, here on the south shores of Lake Michigan, weather has a mind of its own and that early morning call-off leaves parents with their first worry of the day – what to do with the children.
For working parents, a snow day means more than calling home at noon to make sure your children are out of bed and have remembered to take out the dog. You might be grappling with whether or not your children are old enough to stay home alone.
Granted, all of us could probably mention the names of a few adults who should not be left home alone. When it comes to our children, though, we have a legal responsibility to keep them safe. Leaving children alone can boost their confidence and independence; yet, it can pose real dangers, too.
So, what is the legal age in Indiana that children can be left alone? It is not a clear cut answer.
Indiana does not dictate a magical age that states when children are old enough to be left home alone. Instead, parents must determine their children’s capability, comfort level and maturity. No two children are alike in this regard, so what worked for one child may not work for another.
Whether or not to leave your children home alone is a dilemma that should not be taken lightly. It’s natural to think that our home is the safest place in the world for our children. Yet, the Safe Kids Campaign reports, “Every day, six children die from an injury in the home, and 10,000 go to the emergency department for the kinds of injuries that commonly happen in homes.” Preventable injuries, including bathtub drownings, burns and smoke inhalation, poisoning and suffocation happen every day in homes across the country.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway, encourages parents and guardians to consider these questions:
• Is your child physically and mentally able to care for him- or herself?
• Does your child obey rules and make good decisions?
• Does your child feel comfortable or fearful about being home alone?
• Does your family have a safety plan for emergencies? Can your child follow this plan?
• Does your child know his full name, address and telephone number?
• Does your child know where you are and how to contact you at all times?
• Does your child know the full names and contact information of other trusted adults, in case of emergency? (https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/homealone.pdf)
You might also consider the number of children left unsupervised. Children who appear old enough to stay home alone may not be ready to supervise younger siblings. At the same time, younger siblings may not be ready to be supervised by older siblings. Brothers and sisters have a way of challenging each other’s authority. Also, consider the neighborhood circumstances and whether your children are left alone at night or during the day.
Whether to leave your child alone is such a tricky dilemma. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about what to do in the event of an emergency and even have practice runs such as a fire drill at home. Until that moment of an emergency, though, you really don’t know how your child would respond. I know that every time our weather radio blares a tornado warning, I still have a moment of panic.
To “test the waters,” consider running some quick errands while giving your child a chance to prove his or her maturity and to boost both of your confidence levels.
When you finally take the leap of faith to leave your child alone, consider these tips:
• Check in with your child to make sure all is well; ask family or neighbors to do the same.
• Lock away any medications, alcohol or firearms.
• Block television channels or websites that are off-limits.
• Set rules about friends coming over or your child leaving home.
• Keep a list of emergency numbers: fire and police, and trusted adults.
• Write down 911 (in an emergency, your child could forget!)
• List homework or chores that are expected to be completed.
• Make sure your child knows what appliances he or she is permitted to use and knows how to use them.
• Make sure your child knows how to prepare a healthy meal for lunch and/or breakfast.
• Instruct your child whether he or she is allowed to answer the telephone, or if the door should be answered.
• Your child should NEVER indicate that he is home alone. “Mom and Dad are busy right now” is a safer response.
• If you have a trusted neighbor, ask if your child can contact him if he feels scared or threatened.
• Have a back-up plan in place in case you get held up at work and will be later than expected in getting home.
As much as your children might be craving independence, they still need you. As they get older, there is more peer pressure, more exposure to things to which you may not want them exposed. Take the time to talk with your children about how things are going and compliment their responsible behavior.
If you are still are not feeling comfortable with leaving your child alone and trusted family/friends are not available, look into what opportunities the community has available. Some youth organizations have supervised programming available on a drop-in basis.
Check out the home alone brochure on the Indiana Department of Child Services’ website at HYPERLINK "https://www.in.gov/dcs/files/Home_Alone_Brochure.pdf" https://www.in.gov/dcs/files/Home_Alone_Brochure.pdf.
We laughed when Kevin was left home alone in the movies. Within 90 minutes, he learned how to buy a toothbrush, order a pizza, disguise Michael Jordan as a guest at a party and fend off burglars. In real life, though, it wouldn’t be so funny.
Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at email@example.com