Home alone: What age is safe for children?

Walking in the door to an empty house is something more than 12 million children do every day after school. Many of those same kids, if not more, will be spending their summer days home alone as well.

Deciding when a child is old enough to be left home alone is a tough judgment call because there is so much risk involved with leaving children by themselves. Even when you have mature, responsible kids, a lot of things can go wrong when mom and dad aren't around.

Surprisingly, there is not a state law defining the age at which you can legally leave your kids at home without supervision. Even without a law, Amy Webb with the Arkansas Department of Human Services believes parents cannot neglect their children. Therefore it is never okay to leave infants and toddlers home alone.

"We would not recommend obviously leaving younger children home alone," said Webb. "What we want to see is that children are protected. And, if a parent doesn't think that the child can protect themselves and care for themselves don't risk it. Don't leave them home alone and something happen."

"We get several calls a month about this," Lt. Terry Hastings with the Little Rock Police.

Calls to law enforcement about children watching children always go up in the summer months. Lt. Hastings said his officers have some guidelines they keep in mind.

"You have to understand where the child is in their maturity. 13 is probably a good age for us," said Lt. Hastings. "Anything under about 10 and 11 - if we get a call, there could be charges filed against the parents."

Before the age of 13, Lt. Hastings said most kids aren't able to handle the kinds of emergencies that can pop up.

"If a stranger comes to the door, tell them not to open that door. If someone tries to break in, have an escape plan for them. If the house catches fire, what do you do?"

Walking your kids through those scenarios is the key to keeping them safe. Lt. Hastings suggests before leaving them home alone you should always do the following:

-Leave them with safety instructions regarding the house, the alarm system, and the appliances.

-Make sure they know basic first aid.

-Make sure they have all emergency phone numbers listed and have access to a working phone.

-Find a trusted adult, a neighbor or a relative who lives close by and can get to your kids quickly.

-Childproof your home. Lock up alcohol, medications and firearms.

-Set clear house rules regarding friends, TV, and internet access.

Staying home alone is a big step. If your kids demonstrate responsibility at school, are respectful of rules and danger, they may be ready. However, Sharon Long, Education Coordinator at Centers for Youth and Family points out if this isn't something your kids are seeking out on their own, mom and dad shouldn't force it out of convenience.

"Because if we are making that decision to leave a teenager home alone or a teen with a younger child home alone based on our need for a baby sitter, then it's probably not the right decision," said Long.

Enrolling your child in a babysitting course is a great way to help prepare them for being home alone. Those courses are offered regularly through the Red Cross or Arkansas Children's Hospital.

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