Staying safe while home alone

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 9, 2004

With so many dual-income and single parent families today, it is not unusual for children to find themselves coming home to an empty house or apartment after school.

In fact, about one-third of all school-age children in the U.S., an estimated five million between the ages of five and 13, can be considered &uot;latchkey kids&uot;.

Contrary to popular, but unrealistic, movies such as &uot;Home Alone&uot; and its sequel, there are many risks and potential dangers in children being left without adult supervision. Approximately one-third of all child welfare complaints involve latchkey children.

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Ready to be home alone?

Experts say there are a number of factors parents need to consider before leaving a child home alone.

According to Dr. Michael Eichelberger, CEO of the National Safe Kids Campaign, children mature at different rates. &uot;It’s crucial to evaluate your child’s individual development as well as their physical capabilities,&uot; Eichelberger explains.

As a parent, ask yourself questions like these: Can your child be relied upon to obey the rules of the households, finish homework and finish chores? Can they turn off the T.V. and do their homework? Will they be able to resist peer pressure to do something dangerous? If your child is not mature enough to stay alone, it’s important to try to arrange some sort of supervision.

According to Dr. Eichelberger, it is generally considered best if children are not left alone before the age of 12 – even if they think they are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves.

Options to consider

Parents should check into after-school child-care programs offered by their children’s schools, along with programs offered by organizations such as the YMCA of Greenville. Having a grandparent or other relative look after the children is another option for parents to consider.

If family is not available to help out, and it’s too expensive to pay a babysitter, then the possibility of several working parents going in together to share the costs of hiring a responsible adult caregiver should be considered.

The best-laid plans

While parents should strive to limit the times children spend home alone, advance preparation can make all the difference.

Of course, even with the best-laid plans things can, and do, go wrong. Children get sick, babysitters get sick, after-school programs get cancelled during bad weather, holidays and vacations. Parents may have to work late.

Children may end up on their own unless contingency plans are in place. Even with advance planning, they may still end up alone; so all children should be prepared.

Being prepared

n First of all, children should feel safe in their home. You can create a &uot;safe room&uot; in your house by installing a deadbolt lock on the door of a room and putting a phone inside.

n Let your children know rules of behavior still apply and you are still &uot;boss&uot; even when not physically present in the home.

n Make sure your children know your full name, the exact name of the place you work and your work telephone number.

n Show your child how to dial 9-1-1. Place all emergency numbers and the phone number of a friend or neighbor in a visible place near all phones.

n Teach your child how to carry a key so it is secure but never in sight.

n Never have a name and address on keys.

n Instruct your child never to go into a house if the door is ajar or a window is broken.

n Teach your child to lock the door after entering and to keep the doors and windows locked.

n Have them check in regularly with you by phone or report to a neighbor at a regularly scheduled time.

n Instruct your child on how to answer the phone or the doorbell without letting callers know they are alone.

n Make sure your children know where smoke alarms are located; plan and practice a fire escape plan from each room with them. Instruct them to get out of the house immediately if an alarm sounds and go to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department.

n Show your child where the first aid kit is located and how to use the items in it.

n Prepare a snack or meal in advance, preferably one that does not have to be heated.

n Warn your child of potential hazards in the home (such as electrical appliances and portable heaters).

n Make a schedule for your child. Even an hour alone can be overwhelming for a child who is unprepared. Include &uot;musts&uot; like doing homework or setting the table for dinner, and &uot;fun time&uot; (reading a book, listening to music).

Be responsible

While children who are staying home alone need to be able to show responsible behavior, their parents also need to show responsibility by looking out for their children’s well being and sense of security. Here are some tips for parents of latchkey children:

n Always phone if you are going to be late getting home.

n Once, you arrive at home, take the time to discuss how the child’s day went. Show a genuine interest in your child’s affairs.

n Ask to see completed homework assignments, chores and projects.

n Compliment your child on any job that’s well done.

n Make plans to spend time together with your child in the evenings and on weekends.