Does the idea of leaving your preteen "home alone" for the first time bring to mind scenes from the movie of the same name? Do you picture marathon video game sessions, junk food parties, and toy tornadoes tearing through your house?
Trusting your kids with your home and all its contents is enough to give any parent pause, especially during that gray period between ages 9 and 12 when they're no longer babies but not yet full-fledged teenagers (hence the term, "tweens").
Your concerns are warranted, but there are also some real benefits to leaving preteens home alone, or letting them babysit for younger siblings. First, you're fostering a sense of responsibility. And second, you might actually be able to get out for a quiet, kid-free meal with your spouse.
So how do you know at what age it's OK to leave your tween home alone? And when are your kids old enough to start babysitting? Experts say the answers to these questions depend on your child's maturity and your situation.
Here are a few factors to consider before turning over the house -- and your other kids -- to your preteen.
Most states don't have laws stipulating how old a child needs to be to stay home alone. So the decision is left up to the parents' judgment. It's pretty obvious to most parents that a 5-year-old is too young to be left alone in the house. But what about an 11- or 12-year-old?
Most experts say that by age 10 or 11, it's OK to leave a child alone for short periods of time (under an hour) during the day, provided they're not scared and you think they're mature enough to handle it. But you may want to wait another year or two before leaving them alone at night.
Take these factors into consideration when making the decision about whether to leave your child home alone:
- Do you live in a quiet rural or residential neighborhood?
- Does the area have a low crime rate?
- Do you have an alarm system? Does your tween know how to operate it?
- Can your child understand and follow basic rules, like locking the door after coming inside and not opening it for strangers?
- Has your child shown good judgment in past situations?
- Do you have friends, family members, or neighbors who can get to your house quickly in case of an emergency?
- Has your tween shown signs of responsibility in the past? Examples include finishing homework on time without having to be asked and doing chores around the house.
- Is your preteen comfortable with the idea of staying home alone?
If you've answered yes to most or all of these questions, your tween may be ready to stay home alone. Before you leave for the first time, establish a few basic house rules that cover different situations:
- What to do if the doorbell rings
- What to do if the phone rings
- Whether it's OK to have friends over, and if so, how many friends can come over
- What kinds of snacks they can eat
- Time limits on watching TV or playing computer or video games, and a list of approved programs and games
Getting Your Preteen Ready for Babysitting
Some children have the maturity to start babysitting as early as age 12 or 13. Others are better off waiting until they're older teenagers.
Before you let your tween babysit, demand the same qualifications that you would from any babysitter you are considering hiring. Any prospective babysitter needs to be:
- Able to make good decisions
- Able to follow the rules
- Comfortable handling authority without abusing it
- Able to calmly handle any emergency or other problems that arise
Preteens can learn some of these skills, along with first aid and CPR, by taking a babysitting class. Check with your local chapter of the American Red Cross or YMCA for babysitting classes in your area.
Consider having the tween be a mother’s or father’s helper. This will allow you to supervise while the tween learns how to care for the child.
Getting Your Home Ready for Your Tween
Make your house as tween-friendly as possible so you don't have to worry as much about leaving your child alone or in charge of a younger sibling when you go out.
For example, make a list of emergency phone numbers that includes:
- Your cell phone
- Family members who live nearby
- Your pediatrician
- Poison control
- The local police and fire departments
- Panic button on the alarm system
- 911 (It sounds like a no-brainer, but a panicked kid can forget those three numbers.)
Other suggestions include:
- Discuss what to do in case of an emergency, such as a fire, power outage, or severe weather.
- Keep a first-aid kit stocked with bandages, wound disinfectant, and other supplies, and teach your tween how to use it.
- Check to see that all smoke detectors and phones in your house are working.
- Leave flashlights and fire extinguishers in easy-to-find places. Teach your tween when and how to use the fire extinguisher.
- Stock the fridge with enough healthy foods and snacks to hold your tween until you get back. No-heat foods are easier to prepare. If some cooking is needed, show your child how to use the microwave, stove, and other necessary appliances.
- Make sure you've set up parental filters on your TV and computer.
- Hide anything you don't want to end up in your tween's hands. That includes prescription medications, alcohol, guns, tobacco, and lighters.
A Trial Run
Before you let your tween stay home alone or babysit, talk through or role-play several different scenarios, such as:
- "A stranger is ringing the doorbell. What do you do?"
- "The fire alarm is going off. What do you do?"
- "The power goes off. What do you do?"
- "Your sister is throwing a temper tantrum. What do you do?"
Keep your first outing short -- about 30 minutes to an hour. When you get back, go over with your tween how things went at home. Talk about any problems or concerns that arose. If the run-through went well, gradually increase the amount of time you're away.
Whenever you are out, make sure you're easily accessible on your cell phone. Also, call in regularly to make sure things are going smoothly at home.