When can I leave my child home alone?

Thinking of leaving junior alone at home? Be absolutely sure he’s ready. If you’re in any doubt ― don’t!

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We’ve all had those moments where we wished we could just dash out for 15 minutes to pick something up quickly ― without having your child in town.

As much as we love our kiddos, we sigh inwardly as we know that readying them to go out with us doubles ― no, triples ― the amount of work and time required to get things done.

As tempting as it is, you’ll have a lot of factors to take into account before you can come to a decision on whether you can trust your unsupervised child to stay home alone.

Sadly, we’ve read of past tragic incidents when children who were left alone at home met with fatal or near-fatal accidents. In 2013, a 7-year-old boy fell 11 storeys to his death after he woke up alone from an afternoon nap, climbed up a chair at the kitchen window and fell out. In January last year, disaster struck when a 3-year-old girl fell to her death from a fourth-storey flat after her grandma had reportedly left her alone for 15 minutes to go to a shop.

In the US, certain states even have laws regarding the minimum age a child can be left alone at home. In Illinoi, the minimum age is 14, while it’s 10 years old in Oregon.

A young child may not understand the consequences of their actions or how to handle surprise circumstances when they arise.

Singapore doesn’t have such laws, but Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, points out that age alone cannot decide if one is ready. This is because some children are overly protected or spoiled and may not “have the relevant skills needed to take care of themselves”.

Besides being mature enough to care for themselves, you have other factors to consider: Their personality and level ? Koh notes, “By late primary school, most children should have enough skill and exposure.”

Besides the obvious dangers, Koh adds that a young child may not understand the consequences of their actions or how to handle surprise circumstances when they arise. “It can cause stress and anxiety in the child. If something bad happens, it may cause fear.”

Here’s a checklist for you to assess if your child is ready to stay home without any supervision.

· Rules Your child should be able to understand and follow rules. For instance, you should be able to trust your child not to open the door to strangers, and not to mess around with the kitchen stove.

· Contacting others Should the need arise, your child should be able to use a phone to contact you, a family member or a neighbour for help. He should also know key emergency numbers like 999 and 995.

· Simple self-care Does he know how to make himself a sandwich, get water, take calls, and leave a message?

· Basic first aid Let’s say junior sustains a cut. Is he able to find the first-aid kit? Will he know how to put a plaster on his wound? He should be ready to deal with mild injuries.

· Maturity Is your child able to stay calm if an unexpected situation arises? If he gets anxious or stressed by such changes, or if he is restless and impulsive, it’s better to hold off on allowing him to stay home alone.

· Emotional confidence Is he unwilling or hesitant to stay home alone? Does he get lonely or bored easily? Don’t force the responsibility onto him.

If your child is ready, get tips on how to prep him and make sure he’ll be safe…next!
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Koh notes that a child should not be made to stay home without supervision, but should be taught and given time to practise with “distant supervision”. He’ll also need to learn how to deal with certain issues, plus, when he’s confronted with danger, to know what is dangerous and what to be wary about.

Koh recommends these steps when it comes to preparing your child.

1. Teach your child what to do in different situations Examples include when someone knocks on the door, answering the phone, handling injuries, getting help and so on. “This would help the child take action, rather than having to think on the spot,” says Koh.

2. Set up contact persons Let your neighbour know that your child may be home alone. “Provide a number to call, and inform your family members, so that your child can contact them if needed,” Koh explains.

Make sure that window grilles are installed, and lock up poisonous and flammable substances.

3. Communication Always give your child the means to contact you, whether it’s a mobile phone or a landline. Let your child know how long you will be away and when to expect you back. Provide him with a watch or a clock. Call to inform him if you are going to be late.

4. Duration “Do not leave the child alone for too long and with too many responsibilities,” Koh advises.

5. Occupy Give your child something safe to do or occupy himself with.

6. Home safety Ensure nothing in your home is hazardous to your child. Make sure that window grilles are installed, and lock up poisonous and flammable substances.

7. Timing Prepare junior for the moment ― don’t leave when he is sleeping, so he won’t get a shock when he wakes up.

8. Accessibility Make sure your child is able to leave the flat, in case there is a fire.

9. Practice first Start with practice runs. Leave him for 30 minutes and stay nearby. Discuss his experience with him and ask if he ran into any difficulties. Role play situations where he may be required to get help or contact you immediately.

Photos: iStock

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