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Should You Leave Your Child Home Alone?

In Texas, we are about to send our children back to school after a longer than usual summer break. The Legislature decided to move back the public school start date to August 27 for most students, so we are down to the last week of freedom (for the students) or the last week until freedom (for parents).

In July, Jeanne M. Hannah wrote in her Updates in Michigan Family Law blog about the problem that will usually face parents at some time: when is a child old enough to be left home alone? She was discussing the issue in the context of summer vacation, but the substance is the same any time during the year. Michigan apparently has a statute that gives some guidance to parents on that issue, but Texas does not. There is no set, across-the-board age when it suddenly becomes legal for a child to be left alone.

As school starts, many parents will have to determine how to take care of a child (or children) after school and before the parent or parents get home from work. It is often a very difficult problem for single parents. It can also be just as big a problem when both parents work in a two-parent family. Safety is the most important consideration, but avoiding mischief and making productive use of time are also very important. Problems can arise even when one or both parents are present, but there are greater opportunities for problems when no adults are supervising.

Creating computer game zombies is really no solution. There are, however, a number of things that can be done to alleviate the problems. Here are some ideas that can be used as starting points:

  • Hire a nanny or babysitter.

  • Work out a cooperative supervision (“kid-pooling”) arrangement with other parents.

  • Have frequent and verifiable communications with the children.

  • Enroll children in extra-curricular activities that are run by responsible adults, such as sports, music lessons, martial arts, Scouts, etc.

  • If old enough, a child could get a part-time job.

  • If old enough, a child could volunteer to work in some public service jobs.

  • Hire a tutor.

  • Join community programs at Y's, Boys and Girls Clubs, or city or neighborhood programs.

  • Find some other relatives who can watch (and help) the child.

  • Have the child attend an after-school program at his or her school, if one is offered.

A little brainstorming with both parents, and maybe even the child, can lead to many ideas and some creative ways to safely and beneficially occupy the child's time. Each parent might be able to supervise part of the time. If the parents have a good relationship, they may be able to share the responsibility. If the parents can't work well together, perhaps the more responsible parent can enlist others to help out. Even if parents must leave a child alone, they should stay in close contact and have safety backup plans.

Common sense can go a long way. This is an issue that should be anticipated well in advance. There might be time to develop a good foundation: having a close relationship, mutual trust and excellent communication with the child will be helpful. If the parents model good behavior and habits, it will be easier for a child to act that way as well. As children get older and more mature, it will be easier to leave them home, but parents need to help children keep motivated to get homework done and be productive. Underlying all this, it is important to provide a safe environment for the children and keep them busy.

With just a week before most students go back to school in Texas, hopefully arrangements have already been made. If not, there's still time to work out plans. Good luck!