There is no affordable after-school program in your area. Your 10-year-old has been nagging you to let her/him come home alone after school. Soccer practice only happens twice a week. So you have begun to consider having your child come home alone after school. But when and how should you start? How can you make it work? Different families will need different rules, but parents and educators offer some tips for finding your own solutions.
Consider the Age
In her workshop, “The Unsupervised Child,” Patricia Mayer, vice president of the San Diego-based Parents Institute for Quality Education, tells parents there is no set legal age for leaving a child home alone in California. But she suggests that most children under 12 should not be left unsupervised for long periods.
Note: You should check the legal rules in your state before letting your kids be alone after school. In certain states, there are set legal ages for this.
Know Your Child
Rona Renner, host of Childhood Matters (a weekly Bay Area parenting radio show), emphasizes the importance of temperament in deciding whether a child is ready for self-care. “Children usually considered shy or sensitive typically need more preparation. They might need time to slowly adapt to the change. They might need just A, B, or C to be OK. This might be a favorite video or music—whatever may increase their comfort level.”
She recommends starting by leaving a kid alone for shorter amounts of time, like half an hour, and paying attention to how the child seems when you get back. “I started leaving my son home alone for 15 minutes max when he was 10,” says Watsonville mom Rita Moreno, “but I noticed sometimes when we came back he was very anxious. You have to be very careful, because for some children, being alone a short while can seem an eternity.” Because of her son’s “very sensitive” nature, “after I got home I made it a point to talk to him about his feelings.”
Moreno’s second son, a “spirited child,” shows more curiosity and confidence. Because such a child “will get easily bored and restless,” she notes the importance of making very clear rules, such as “Don’t go into the yard alone.” David Valladolid, president of the Parents Institute, recalls that at age 12 his daughter began “rebellions against the babysitter, calling her grandmother to complain, almost demanding to be left home alone.”
“Parents are often surprised how well their children do,” says Renner. “Parents are more anxious. A lot of it is about parent fear.”
Have a Clear Plan
Valladolid encourages families considering the latch-key option to make a to-do list including: a back-up plan if keys are lost and a child has no access to the house, emergency phone numbers, including neighbors available to help, and a scheduled phone call to parents.
“With teens,” Renner stresses, “you need to be very clear.” She recalls a time when she had said “no parties” and came home to find several other teens in the house—they just didn’t consider that a party. She also recommends now and then coming home earlier than expected.
“I didn’t have to tell my children the stove is off limits, or jumping out of the window is off limits,” Moreno points out. “I teach them how to use things so they don’t use them in inappropriate ways.”
Renner suggests that parents practice home alone role-plays with their children. Parents should “make it a game of ‘What if?’ rather than something scary.” Perhaps the most important things children should rehearse is how and whether to answer the phone and door.
A phone call to parents upon arrival at home is a key rule. “This not only reassures parents, but gives the child a sense of security and connection” says Mayer. Parents who work in restaurants or stores can use their breaks to check in with their children. “My child is 16,” says Mayer. “I still expect him to call me at 3:30—I call him again at 5.” Cell phones, she says, can be “life-saving” for children, “knowing they can reach mom or dad at any moment. I know how helpful it has been for my son.”
Decide How Much Structure
Jan Eatre, of Berkeley, doesn’t give her son a strict set of rules and schedule because, “he hates being told what to do. He gets that at school all day. [Also,] he’s very self-sufficient, grounded.” Your family’s latch-key rules, she says, “depend upon your relationship with your child already. If you don’t trust your children, then you have a problem. Parents transfer their fear to their children. Our children are fine. They need more respect.”
In contrast, Mayer feels that “at 13 to 15 years, it is important to give unsupervised children some structure.” She suggests parents and child agree upon “a schedule with expected outcomes to be completed by the time a parent arrives, for example, first homework, then write a letter, then cook the pasta or make the salad.”
A believer in schedules, Mayer says “Idle time often gets children into trouble.”
Consider Your Community
“ Low-income neighborhoods can have more issues of safety, and often less resources,” says Valladolid. But “usually there is more of a cultural community, people are more dependent upon each other.”
Another major consideration may be how the community treats your particular child. Eatre notes, “Our culture is safer for white kids than it is for kids of color. I know that a white 14-year-old found ‘experimenting’ will be treated differently than a kid of color. Parents with children of color are dealing with racism. There is more fear,which may make them more protective, with stricter rules.
Look for Alternatives
When parents are really anxious about leaving kids alone, Mayer suggests they consider alternatives. Some may be able to cut their work hours or juggle work schedules with other family members.
Vallodolid had live-in relatives until his children were 12. He suggests extended family might help with child care, or older children might care for younger ones. But parents should be careful of their children’s feelings, Mayer notes. They may resent being “pushed to maturity.”
Or perhaps finding an affordable after-school program just involves doing more research. Despite budget problems, California has increased support for after-school programs in the last few years, and some are free or low-cost. Karla Rosales, director of an after-school program in San Francisco, says in her program parents pay only $30 a month. Kids get a snack, homework help, and recreational activities ranging from art to dance, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Parents should inquire at schools, churches, libraries, community organizations, and the YMCA. If they don’t have programs of their own, they may know where else to look.
“Ready for It”
Eatre’s son Daniel started staying home alone at 12. He says he was “was ready for it. Now (at 14) my parents know my friends that come over.” The rule is, “Just no girls!” Daniel admits that at first, with his new freedom, he thought, “Maybe I should do something my parents wouldn’t let me, now that they are not home!” But then, “I thought it wouldn’t be so smart.”