Developed by Martha Bowen, Human Environmental Sciences Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

Relationship to Building Strong Families
Almost from the moment a child is born, a parent begins to dream and plan for the day when that child becomes an independent, caring, and responsible human being. The attention of the parents gravitates toward developing and preparing the child to care for him or herself. Learning to walk and talk are unforgettable events. Dramatic growth developments such as these are guided and supported by the child’s parents and other family members.

Children have differing timetables for social, physical, and emotional development and maturity. Even children within the same family grow and develop at different rates. Eventually, however, children reach that significant time in their lives when they make the transition from being cared for to caring for themselves. Parents are then faced with making many important decisions to provide a safe environment for their children.

For families to remain strong, all persons involved in the care-giving and care-need situation should be involved in decision-making. In the past, women were usually the care-givers for the children, the disabled, and the elderly of the family. Now the majority of women are employed outside the home, and alternative methods of care-giving like child self-care must be considered.

Brief program description
Almost all families must at some time leave children at home alone. The time alone may be several minutes during a quick trip to the store, before and after school, or all day while parents work. If there are doubts about whether or not a child is ready to stay alone, this program will help the family reach a decision.

Participants will learn the developmental signs of readiness and maturity in children that will suggest an ability to stay at home alone and meet the challenge of self-care. Through various activities families will learn to help children understand and practice safety procedures for at-home-alone times. Families who want more information should refer to “At Home Alone” listed in the resource section.

Research findings
No magic age exists when children develop the maturity and good sense they need to stay alone. For many children, the abilities needed for self-care begin to appear around the ages of 10 and 12. However, each child is unique, and parents need to take the differences and unevenness of development into account.

Some physically well-developed children may not have the social and cognitive skills needed to care for themselves at age 12 alone at home. One child might have characteristics that are typical of several different ages. For example, at age 10, Mike may physically look like a 12-year-old, yet have the social and cognitive skills of an eight-year old. Research suggests that children who look older physically are sometimes pushed into behaving in ways they are not socially and emotionally ready to handle.

For whatever reason a child is at home alone, a family must make its own decision concerning the child’s readiness to begin self-care. It is a decision that parents and children must make together. Children must be capable of handling the responsibility and feel ready, and parents must be comfortable with the decision and the arrangement.

Safety is the number one concern. As a result, children younger than age 10 should not be left alone. Even for older children who are ready to stay alone, child care should be continued if the neighborhood is unsafe and there are no adults nearby to call in case of an emergency.

Goals and objectives

  • To identify the developmental stages and characteristics of children;
  • To understand the “stay alone” readiness signs for children;
  • To recognize that self-care is a family matter and decisions to begin self-care must be a joint decision between parents and child;
  • To understand effective guidelines for establishing at-home-alone rules;
  • To determine and practice safety rules and procedures.

Target audience
Working families with children

If you have any questions or need information, contact:

Kathy Dothage
Building Strong Families Program Coordinator
University of Missouri Extension
1205 University Avenue, Ste. 400
Columbia, MO 65211

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Last updated: 05/16/2017
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