With the majority of U.S. children living in households in which both parents work, being home alone after school is a reality for thousands of Massachusetts youth and millions across the country. Yet, with some common sense, training, and family discussions, experts say kids can be safe and secure.
“It really is the first big step for kids,” says Juanita Allen Kingsley, who has traveled across central and eastern Massachusetts for the past 10 years teaching home alone safety classes to children ages 9-11 via Natick-based Century Health Systems. “I love the enthusiasm kids have, wanting to show their parents that they can do a good job with it.”
While more than a dozen states offer guidelines recommending the age at which a minor can be left home alone (ranging from 6 to 12), Massachusetts does not specify a minimum age.
In a recent class, 10 tweens sat around a conference room table in Holliston, legs swinging, still short of touching the floor, as they listened to Kingsley talk safety. She covers the basics parents would expect, from how to answer the phone and where to safely keep a house key, to the unexpected, such as how to self-administer the Heimlich or handle an overflowing toilet.
“If you’re old enough to be home alone, you’re old enough to try and clean up,” she smiles, emphasizing that kids should know how to use a plunger and where the water shutoff value can be found.
For Kingsley, it’s a balancing act of educating children without scaring them: “I think of this as building common sense and empowering children through skill building.”
While many of the traditional afterschool safety lessons remain the same, the 21st century has presented several new challenges for children home alone.
One area that may be easily overlooked: “Parents need to lock up prescription medication,” she says. “You cannot have young adolescents in the house alone when you’ve got Tylenol with Codeine or Percosets out there unlocked. I would say if we went into anybody’s home right now, people have medications, whether it’s a younger child’s Adderall or a parent’s antidepressants, probably in the medicine cabinet, on somebody’s dresser, or kitchen cabinet near water glasses.”
KidsHealth.org reports that 24% of teens surveyed said they have tried prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription. “Kids are so savvy about prescription drug abuse and what they’re looking for,” Kingsley adds.
Social media is another potential pitfall. “If they are home alone, they are going to be using their phones or their tablets,” she says. “I think the idea of emphasizing kind and prudent social media use is important, whether kids are home alone or not. They might be a little bit more uninhibited if there’s nobody in the house.”
Yet there is at least one unexpected benefit of screen time: “The default setting, at least for boys, when they’re home alone is they want to play video games, so there’s less of an urging for kids to try to get their parents to let them have a friend over,” she adds.
If parents decide their child can invite a friend over while home alone, Kingsley advises adults to take a moment to assess the guest ahead of time.
“You have to make sure you’re comfortable with the child, comfortable with their parenting, as much as you know, and you’ve gone through an extra layer of creating a safe environment,” she advises.
Tough, But Necessary, Conversations Are Needed
While leaving a child home alone generates discussions regarding the house and its contents, the subject also raises questions in areas that parents tend to avoid altogether.
One particular scenario: what to do if a stranger tries to enter the home. Jarrett Arthur, a Los Angeles-based self-defense and safety expert who specializes in teaching parents and children, encourages families to develop escape routes from each room, also useful in case of a fire: “It’s easy to say, ‘Just go out the front door’ in an emergency, but what if that’s where somebody is trying to come in? The kids need to be able to have a game plan from each room of the house.”
She encourages families to post these routes somewhere visible, like a refrigerator, and practice actual dry runs twice a year — at the start of winter and summer vacations.
“Physically run through the escape routes with kids — you can make it fun,” she advises. “Set up a stop watch and see who can get out of the house fastest from different rooms. Being able to walk through with your kids in a non-stressful environment is really incredibly important. Leaving minors home alone dictates that you equip them with skills that they might not have to make those decisions in the moment.”
Extreme safety concerns extend beyond traditional stranger-danger discussion, a fact that may cause parents to avoid those subjects all together.
“Personal safety tends to be something that is not talked about consistently. The feedback that I get from parents all the time is that they don’t want their kids thinking that the world is a big, scary place,” Arthur says. “We don’t want our kids thinking that, but there’s certainly a way to work personal safety and self defense into those general life skills that you’re teaching them.”
A case in point: seat belts. “They get in the car, they put their seatbelt on, but you don’t see any kids that are terrified of getting in the car because they don’t want to be in a car wreck,” she notes. “We are teaching our kids safety all the time.”
However, when conversation shifts to the rare chance of a home invasion or abduction attempt, “all of a sudden the conversation comes to a screeching halt,” Arthur says. “And that in and of itself is what makes these topics even scarier. It’s the things we don’t talk about that are shrouded in mystery. Kids understand really quickly, if we’re not talking about it, it has to be an off-limits, scary, not-talked-about topic.”
Discussing those issues won’t necessarily scare children, but instead will give them powerful tools, she asserts.
“Crime is still out there and it’s not going anywhere,” Arthur says. “And while the likelihood is that your child is never going to have to use any of this, it’s important to think of personal safety and self defense as one of those life skills that better prepares a child for life in general. It gives them more confidence; it makes them less likely to be targeted as a victim of a crime. They gain self-advocacy skills, learning how to stand up for themselves, and be more self-aware: all really positive things they still benefit from even if they never have to use any of these skills in a confrontation or in a threat.”
Home Solo: Things To Know
Basic first aid
How to safely carry and secure a house key
How and when to answer the door and phone
What (and what not) to eat when home alone
Which kitchen appliances (if any) can be used
How to conduct the Heimlich on yourself
Poison control number
What to do in case of fire
Securing windows and doors
Location of the water shut-off valve
Location of first aid kit
Location of flashlights
Location of key contact and emergency numbers
How to use a plunger