Question of the Week

June 11 2008


As schools go on break, more and more kids of all ages are either home alone, or home with just their siblings.

"Around age 11 or 12, many kids start spending short periods of time at home alone. They might let themselves in the house after school or stay home alone while mom or dad goes to the store. But it really depends on how the kid feels about this. Some kids don't like the idea of staying home alone while others beg their parents for a chance to try it. Even if you'll be staying home alone for a short while, it's important to know what you would do in an emergency. It's also good to know of an adult who lives nearby who you could call if you feel lonely or need something. And if you don't want to stay home alone yet, be sure to talk that over with your mom or dad."

As tweens reach ages 11 or 12, staying home alone becomes more common. By the time they are tweens, some people have been staying home alone for years; others have friends who have been staying home alone since they were younger. Tweens can feel pressure from peers (or even parents and siblings) to stay home alone after school, or while parents are at work during the day. The "right" age for a person to be ready to stay home alone is different for everyone.

It's not always easy for tween and their parents to talk about everything, but tweens need to feel comfortable talking with their parents about any concerns they might have when it comes to staying home without an adult or babysitter. Additionally, parents need to be able to communicate with their twwens about what is expected, and what they need to know to be prepared.

"Most parents would never think of leaving a child under age 10 at home alone for more than a few minutes, but the rules are much less clear for 'tweens' between the ages of 11 and 13. Whether for a few hours or the entire day, millions of tweens will be left home unsupervised this summer. Now a new survey reveals that many parents who leave their preteens at home do so despite concerns that young children may not have the knowledge and skills to safely stay home alone. ... 'There is no magic age at which a child can be left home alone, but parents have to have the conversation with their kids about safety. Not doing this leaves too much to chance.' ... The poll revealed that:

  • 32% of parents had not talked much or at all about neighborhood safety issues, including when to answer the door when parents were away.
  • 30% had talked very little or not at all about Internet safety.
  • And 28% had talked very little or not at all about home safety, such as what to do in case of fire or severe weather. ...
  • Close to 30% expressed concern that their child might give out personal information over the telephone or on the Internet.
  • One in four was not fully confident that their child would be able to use the stove, oven, or microwave safely.
  • And 11% were not fully confident that their child would not play with guns."

While all of the statistics listed above suggest that parents need to be having more conversations with their children before leaving them home alone, there are resources and "conversation starters" available to make it easier to bring up difficult topics.

By 11 or 12, tweens should already understand the difference between fantasy and reality. A quick review of what can happen in reality (not just on TV) when things go wrong can reinforce for tweens (children and teens, as well) how important it is to be careful in real life.

"Even though you've seen cartoon characters get up and walk around after being shot by a gun, it's important to remember that this could only happen on television or in video games. A real gun is never a toy, and life is not a video game. Real guns use bullets that hit actual targets. If that target is an animal or a person, the bullet can rip through skin, muscles, bones, and organs, doing a lot of damage. A gunshot can permanently cripple someone or even kill."

While talking about what can happen in the abstract is helpful, it can often be difficult for children, tweens, teens, and even adults, to transfer those ideas into safe behaviors. Many people (of all ages) have a difficult time thinking that something bad could really happen to them.

There are many lessons that parents hope their children don't have to learn first hand. When the harshness of reality hits another family, it can be an opportunity for tweens and teens to learn from their mistakes so that future tragedies may be avoided.

"[T]heir 14-year-old son [hid] a loaded gun in the house. The couple's 10-year-old son found the gun, and as he handed it to his older brother Tuesday night, it accidentally fired, hitting the boys' 11-year-old sister in the head. The girl, Andrea Williams, died Wednesday morning at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, surrounded by family. Police arrested the 14-year-old, who had put the gun in the closet, and charged him with felonious assault."

Guns may be a more obvious danger, but families need to talk about what is expected, and what is safe, in other areas of life, as well.

For more information about Internet safety, including discussion questions, visit:

There may be guns around, the potential for dangers online, or just the need to make a meal and safely use the kitchen, Whatever the circumstances, accidents can happen, and whether a tween (or teen) is home alone or babysitting, it is important to be prepared in the event something goes wrong.

"In situations where you're in charge ... you need to be prepared in advance for emergencies. Here are some things you can do so you can respond quickly if something happens:

  • Make sure there's a list of emergency numbers near each telephone in the house. ...
  • Keep on hand numbers for adults you should call. ...
  • If you're looking after someone with a health condition, know when the person needs to take any medications - particularly medicines for breathing or heart problems. ...
  • Make sure the home or building you're in has working smoke alarms.
  • Make sure your family or the family you're caring for has a fire escape plan and that children know their outdoor meeting point in case of an emergency.
  • Take a first-aid class to learn CPR so you'll be prepared to help someone in an emergency.
  • Make sure the poison control center phone number is handy. Some areas have toll-free numbers available.
  • Keep a first-aid kit in the house and know how to use it. If you live in an area prone to natural disasters, such as tornadoes or earthquakes, know what to do in an emergency."

Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out not only what to do in an emergency, but what constitutes an emergency.

"A 911 emergency is a situation in which someone needs immediate help because he or she is injured or in immediate danger. ... Call 911 if there's a fire, if someone has had an accident, or if you see a crime being committed. Don't hesitate to call 911 if a friend has taken drugs or done something else that's life threatening. ... Although you may feel a sense of panic when faced with an emergency, try your best to stay in control. ... You know that you need to stay calm and speak slowly and clearly so that the 911 operator can understand you. But did you know you should stay on the phone and not hang up until the operator tells you it is OK? That way, you can be sure that the operator has all the information that's needed to get help to you fast. It's easy to assume that operators can trace where a call is coming from, but that's not always the case. ...

Questions of the Week:
If there are laws in your state pertaining to when children can stay home alone, what are the legal requirements for families who plan to have children and tweens home without adult supervision? What do children, teens, and tweens need to know before they should be left home alone? What do they need to talk about with their families before staying home alone? How might this information vary for those of different ages or those who will be home alone in the daytime rather than at night? As a child, teen, or tween who is home alone, what should you do if you feel scared, uncomfortable, or do not have an adult around during an emergency? How can a child, tween, or teen respond when others think they should (or should not) be able to stay home alone, but they have a different opinion? What issues do you need to discuss with your friends and family before deciding to go to a friend's house (or invite a friend over to your house) when there are no adults home?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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