Perspective Newsletter

Time for The Talk (home-alone safety, that is)

child alone at home

​​​​Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister turned burglar-bashing into a comedy franchise with the 1990 movie Home Alone. But the truth is, for many kids and teens, being home alone feels scary. Strange noises, fear of burglars, and worries about what to do in an emergency can leave even confident kids missing Mom or Dad.

If your child, grandchild, or younger sibling is among the 7 million children under age 14 who, according to census data, regularly stay home alone, here are five things you can do to reshape alone time into independent time:

  1. Talk safety, not stranger danger. You may never guess by listening to the news, but the United States is safer now than it was when you were a kid. Virtually every type of crime is down, and with cell phones, videochat, and security cameras, "alone" is a lot less isolated than it used to be. Instead of talking about stranger danger, talk about how safe kids act with people they don't know, whether in person, online, or on the phone.
  2. Make friends with the alarm system. Besides keeping the door locked, kids should know how to arm and disarm the alarm system and use its "stay" feature. You also may want to point out the police, fire, and medical buttons that, in a real emergency, would bring help with one push. Make the alarm a matter-of-fact part of life. Just another appliance like the microwave or refrigerator.
  3. Remind kids they aren't watchdogs. If kids come home to find the door ajar or see a broken window (or any sign of a possible break-in), they should stop, go to a neighbor's house, and call you or the police. If they hear a strange noise outside, they don't need to investigate like you would. It's fine to just let a noise be a noise. If they're concerned it might be a break-in, though, show them how to call the police or, if that's not possible, how to find a good hiding place.
  4. Show them how to handle mini-emergencies. "Telling" about emergencies leaves room for worry. "Showing" gives practice and confidence. Teach kids to take control of mini-emergencies with simple instructions like these:
    • She accidentally breaks a glass, and her finger is bleeding a little. Show her how to open and put on a bandage.
    • He notices a leak under the sink. Tell him to turn off the faucet, stop using that sink until an adult gets home, and put down towels to soak up the water.
    • He scorches his toasted cheese sandwich. Tell him to turn off the stove. Using a potholder so he doesn't burn his hand, lift the pan (smoking sandwich still in it) off the burner, and put it in the sink. Turn on the stove fan and open a window slightly to air out the smell. Once the pan cools off, he can fill it with water to start unsticking the mess.
  5. Tell them how to get out in a big emergency. Kids should feel confident leaving the house if they smell natural gas or the smoke or carbon monoxide alarm goes off. Practice going next door, where they should first call the fire department, then you. Remind kids that once they're out, they shouldn't go back in unless you or a firefighter tells them it's safe. (Be sure to keep detector batteries fresh to ensure they work when needed, but don't chirp or give false alarms caused by low batteries.)

A final thought: Consider appointing your child his or her own sitter. When you get home, ask how the "babysitter" did. Homework done? Chores finished? If the answer is yes, pay the babysitter with cash, a treat, extra screen time, or other reward. Done right, it could have your child begging to be left in charge!

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