June 11, 2008 -- Most parents would never think of leaving a child under age 10 at home alone for more than a few minutes, but the rules are much less clear for "tweens" between the ages of 11 and 13.
Whether for a few hours or the entire day, millions of tweens will be left home unsupervised this summer.
Now a new survey reveals that many parents who leave their preteens at home do so despite concerns that young children may not have the knowledge and skills to safely stay home alone.
Two-thirds of parents with children between the ages of 11 and 13 who took part in the poll said they had left their kids at home alone for an hour or two.
One in five said they had left them alone for an entire day.
Yet about a quarter of parents said they had not talked much with their preteens about common concerns including home, neighborhood, and Internet safety.
"These topics would seem to be major priorities for discussion before a child is left at home alone," says pediatrician Matthew M. Davis, MD, who directs the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.
"There is no magic age at which a child can be left home alone, but parents have to have the conversation with their kids about safety. Not doing this leaves too much to chance."
Tweens Home Alone
Parents of 11- to 13-year-olds who took part in the poll were asked if they had talked with their children about common safety concerns, and if so, how much.
The poll revealed that:
- 32% of parents had not talked much or at all about neighborhood safety issues, including when to answer the door when parents were away.
- 30% had talked very little or not at all about Internet safety.
- And 28% had talked very little or not at all about home safety, such as what to do in case of fire or severe weather.
When parents who reported leaving tweens home alone were asked to rate their confidence that their children would follow specific safety guidelines when left at home unsupervised, the reactions were mixed:
- Close to 30% expressed concern that their child might give out personal information over the telephone or on the Internet.
- One in four was not fully confident that their child would be able to use the stove, oven, or microwave safely.
- And 11% were not fully confident that their child would not play with guns.
"Given how lethal guns are, it seems to me that 11% is too high," Davis says. "Anytime a gun is in the house there has to be discussion about safety, especially if children are being left home alone."
Too Few Parents Discuss Safety
The poll results make it clear that too few parents are talking to their children about safety prior to leaving them home alone, Davis says.
Nashville first-grade teacher and mother of three Michelle Allison and her husband, John, are among the exceptions.
On the occasions when tween daughters Emily, now almost 13, and Sophie, who is 11, are left at home alone for an hour or two, they know the rules. Eight-year-old Carter does not stay home without a parent.
"We run around like crazy most of the time taking one to lessons and another to practice, so this has become a big issue," Michelle says. "When the girls are home alone they know not to answer the door and no cooking. When we're gone, it's cold Pop Tarts."
The girls also have cell phones, and they are told to keep them close and answer them when their parents are not home.
"We have to be able to contact them at all times," she says.
Finally, John has placed content-blocking software on all five computers in the couples' home.
"The Internet is always a concern, so you have to monitor it carefully," Michelle says.