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Parental strategies can ease home-alone fears
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Some parents use age to determine if children can stay home alone, but Mississippi State University experts say maturity level and problem solving skills are more important factors to consider.
Mississippi child protection laws back up this philosophy. The state sets no age limitation on children left alone at home, but guidelines issued by the Mississippi Department of Human Services emphasize the child’s maturity level as a gauge for parental decision making.
“Many parents who have children must leave for work in the mornings before school opens and get home in the afternoons later than the children do,” said early childhood development specialist Louise Davis of the MSU Extension Service. “These hours can often present a challenge for working parents.”
Children 12 years of age and up usually are mature enough to stay home alone for short periods of time, she said. Factors outside the home can come into play, such as the community surrounding the home.
“If you live in a neighborhood or area that is supportive and stable, your decision may be different than if you live in an area that is unfriendly and mobile,” Davis said. “Even if the neighborhood is supportive in general, it is best not to leave a child under 12 home alone on a regular basis or for a long period of time.”
Parents and children involved in a home-alone decision need to talk things through first. As adults, parents are responsible for making these arrangements work, and they must prepare their children to handle themselves in a variety of circumstances.
“Can children make decisions, such as knowing when to unlock a door, answer a phone or make themselves something to eat?” said Tabitha Staier, Extension family education specialist. “Parents should observe their child perform these tasks before they make a decision.”
Parents should make sure their child understands how to get in touch with them when emergencies or questions arise. Post contact information where children can easily access it, including parent cell and work phone numbers and other ways to contact parents. Include phone numbers for the police and fire departments, the local hospital or medical clinic, neighbors, relatives and other trusted adults.
“Some parents have an agreement in place to make periodic phone call checks with children who are home alone,” Staier said. “This strategy does much to reassure the child and the parent that everything’s okay.”
Posting safety information and evacuation plans for fires, spills and leaks also help children protect themselves from danger.
“Teach your child to call 911 if there is an emergency,” Davis said. “Discuss the differences between real-life situations and play situations.”
Parents also need to be aware that today’s social networking and Internet usage may put their children in peril. They need to talk about these issues with children and contact local Internet providers or cable TV companies for help with these issues.
“Parents have the responsibility to make the home safe for children, particularly when they can’t watch over the children directly for a period of time,” Staier said. “Chat rooms, ‘Twittering’ and interactive computer games can make a child vulnerable to strangers with harmful intentions.”
Children need to understand what they are allowed to do and what unacceptable behavior is. State these guidelines simply and have a backup strategy should children ignore the rules or make mistakes in following them.
“Be sure everyone is completely comfortable about the decision for children to stay home alone,” Davis said. “If you feel uncertain in any way, you may pass your anxieties to your child, thus increasing his or her fears.”
Parents also can consider other strategies if they decide their children are not comfortable being at home alone. Club activities with other children and adult leaders, such as scouting, 4-H and church youth groups, often take place after school and on weekends.
Participating in school athletics and recreational sports gives children opportunities to exercise and develop physical skills while under adult supervision. Many school districts and child care centers offer before- and after-school care.
“These activities give children variety and an alternative to staying home alone,” Staier said. “They also help teach social skills that children need when they are home alone and must seek help.”
Single parents especially need a large support system of relatives, friends and neighbors because they alone are responsible for guiding, supervising and protecting their children.
“Remember that there are rules and guidelines for appropriate behavior among all parties in these situations,” Staier said. “Establishing such boundaries can promote family togetherness and allow families to thrive in any situation.”