A recent U.S. Census report shows 7 million of the nation’s 38 million children ages 5 to 14 are left home alone regularly. For many parents, this is not a happy or freely chosen decision. The increase in single-parent households, the need for both parents to work in two-parent families, the lack of availability of affordable and constructive childcare, the fact that older relatives are working themselves, are too far away, or are unwilling, and the fact that school days are out of sync with workdays all create an untenable situation. For many families, there are gaps in child supervision that seem impossible to fill.

Many parents feel guilty about it. Their own tension and anxiety goes up from the time they know that school has let out until they can get home. Distracted by worry, they find that their productivity goes down and their clock-watching goes up until they can walk in their own front doors.

Other parents minimize the issue as a way to get by. Unable to deal with the worry and unable to change the situation, they put themselves in a state of functional denial, convincing themselves that of course everything is all right, that the kids are more mature than they really are, and that bad things only happen to other people.

Still other parents parent by cell phone. Their kids are instructed to call when they leave school, when they get home, after their snack, while they do their homework, and whenever they have a problem. It keeps the parents in touch but it means the parent isn’t working effectively and the child is tethered to the phone.

Negative Effects

What is the effect on the kids who are frequently left alone?

Many kids are afraid. They may be afraid of the ordinary noises of an otherwise empty house. They may be afraid of burglars. They may be afraid of the tougher kids on the block. TV and video games have taught our kids that there is plenty to be afraid of in the world. Their own experience has shown them that they are little and vulnerable. When asked why they don’t tell their parents about their fears, the kids reply that they don’t want to be seen as babies, they don’t want to worry their parents, or they don’t want to let their folks down.

Many kids report they are lonesome. Kids who are home alone often aren’t allowed to have other kids over when mom or dad isn’t there. They aren’t allowed to go to other kids’ houses if those kids also are home alone. Frequently they can’t participate in play dates, after-school sports, or extracurricular activities because no parent availability means no transportation. The result is that many kids left alone don’t develop the social skills of their peers. In order to stay safe, they aren’t out playing with other kids and learning how to get along.

Obesity is common. Being home alone and staying indoors means that many of these kids aren’t running around or biking or playing. Instead they are snacking in front of the TV. They eat so they won’t be bored. They eat for entertainment. They eat as a way to deal with loneliness.

Although parents may tell them to do their homework and not to watch TV, most kids report that they don’t spend much time with schoolwork or reading. Instead they go straight to some kind of screen (TV, the computer, or video games) to keep them company, to keep their fears at bay, and to reduce the boredom of being by themselves.

It’s easy for parents to set rules but it isn’t easy to enforce them. The rule may be that other kids aren’t to be in the house, but if the kids are careful, their parents won’t know. The rule may be to do homework first, then TV, but many kids do their homework in front of the TV, if at all. The rule may be not to go on chat sites with strangers but with no one to monitor them, kids often go to places on the computer that they shouldn’t.

Siblings frequently are asked to care for younger kids. Sometimes it works, especially when there is an age difference of at least 5 years. If the older child experiences doing care as having status and embraces the responsibility, it can have a positive impact on both. But too often, kids only a couple of years older are charged with taking care of younger sibs. Often the older child resents the younger ones and the younger ones won’t grant the older one any authority. Instead of being company for each other, the children end up alternately fighting with and ignoring each other.

Tips for Making It Work Anyway

It can be a very challenging and anxiety-filled situation for parents and kids. But for the time at least, there are going to be millions of kids spending time alone while their concerned parents do their best to manage their households from a distance. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be all negative. A solid parent-child relationship, realistic expectations, careful planning and teaching, and the use of routines can make the time alone safer and can even help children become more responsible and creative than they would have been if constantly supervised.

The parent-child relationship is key. When parents have solid relationships with their children, it is more likely that their kids will be honest with them about how they are feeling and what they are doing. All children need parents who listen to them and are actively involved. This is even more true when children are regularly left on their own.

Creating the bond that results in mutual trust and cooperation takes time. It means sitting down to listen to kids after a long day at work. It means asking questions that show that you know about your child’s life and are interested in what is happening. It means taking a look at homework and being available to help, not just making judgments on what the child has or hasn’t done. It means spending time after supper doing a craft project, reading together, or teaching a new skill instead of letting everyone go to their separate corners to work on computers or watch TV.

Kids who learn a repertoire of enjoyable activities from their parents are more likely to do those activities when they are alone. Kids who have close bonds with their parents are more likely to follow the rules and talk to their parents when there are problems.

Be a good listener (to words and to behavior). Don’t discredit children’s fears and concerns. Listen carefully. Let the child know that it’s normal to be afraid sometimes and work together to figure out ways to solve the problem. Stay alert for when kids are breaking rules. But before you administer punishment, think about what the child’s misbehavior is telling you. Is she bored? Is he needing more contact with friends? Is she angry that you are away so much? Is he needing more or less structure? Is she trying to show you that you can’t make her obey rules she doesn’t like? Take the time to listen to what is behind the rule-breaking and respond accordingly.

Have realistic expectations. One 10-year-old told me that she was expected to do the breakfast dishes, make all the beds, sweep the kitchen, make sandwiches for the next day’s lunchboxes for herself and her sister, and do her homework, all while keeping an eye on her 7-year-old sister in the two hours before her mom got home. If everything wasn’t done, her mom got mad at her. When I asked her mom why the list was so long, and why she was so regularly upset with the kids, she replied that by having so much to do and making sure they toed the line, the kids couldn’t get into trouble. She accomplished that goal but at the expense of the relationship. Her kids were overwhelmed by the number of tasks and afraid of her anger. It would have been much better if she had sat down with the kids each week and come up with a shorter chore list that also included some ideas for fun. Doing it together and varying the list would help the kids feel that they were all working as a team to keep them safe and happy after school.

Set up regular check-ins. Cell phones have made this much easier. Parents and kids can check in regularly from the time school lets out to the time the parent gets home. Have clear rules about when you check in with each other. For example: Kids can check in when they get home, if they want to go out to play (if that’s allowed), and when they return home. Parents can check in when they have to do something at work that will make them unavailable for a time, and when they leave work so the kids will know when they will get home.

Teach phone and computer safety skills. Kids should never let strangers (on the phone, at the door, or on the Internet) know they are home alone. It’s a good idea to give the kids specific words to say and to practice them. Consider lines like: “My dad’s home sick and is taking a nap. He said not to bother him.” Or “My mom’s outside. Can I have her call you back?” or “My uncle/dad/big brother is in the shower. I’ll tell him you called.”

Test it out. Periodically ask a co-worker to call your home and see what your child says. If they pass the test, give them glowing praise. If they don’t, don’t get mad, get busy. The kids need more instruction. Make a game of roleplays or use a toy phone to practice what they should say.

Be prepared for emergencies. Children who are frequently left alone absolutely must have some training in what to do if there is a fire, if they cut themselves, and if they suspect that someone is trying to break in. Knowing what to do helps kids feel less afraid and more capable of taking care of themselves. Make sure you have first aid supplies on hand. Make sure the smoke detector works. Make sure your kids know the signs of a possible break-in so they don’t go in the house.

Telling kids what to do usually isn’t enough. Kids under age 10, especially, need to be shown. Practice bandaging a cut. Practice getting out of the house quickly and calling the fire department from a neighbor’s house. Practice calling the police and getting out of the house quietly (or finding a place to hide) in the event of a breakin. Make a chart of emergency numbers together and post copies strategically around the house. Put them next to every phone and next to the computer as well as in the child’s school bag.

Create a backup. Parents can be delayed. Schools can suddenly close and send kids home. A child can get sick. If at all possible, find someone (an at-home neighbor, a parent who gets home earlier than you do, a teenage babysitter) who is willing to be an occasional backup for those times when supervision is needed and you can’t get there right away. Make sure your child knows this person well enough to feel comfortable with him or her. Even if children never use the backup, they usually feel comforted knowing one is possible.

Think twice before putting kids in charge of each other. Sometimes it’s appropriate and necessary. A teenager can be enlisted to take care of a much younger sib. But with children two years or less apart in age, you might do better to make them each in charge of themselves.

One mom shared her approach: She told the kids that they were each their own babysitter. They each had a list of responsibilities (checking in, doing a chore, getting homework done, etc.) until she got home. Then she would ask each child how her “babysitter” (herself) had done taking care of her. A good report meant the “babysitter” got paid a nominal amount.

Find ways to give the kids a break. Being home alone every day after school is stressful for many kids. Even one afternoon at a dance class, a sports practice, or at another kid’s house will break up the week. Often this means setting up an exchange with another parent. Maybe you could volunteer to do the driving on Saturday mornings in exchange for rides for your children during the week. It doesn’t have to be an identical exchange. For example: Maybe you could babysit for another parent on Friday nights in exchange for that parent taking your kid for play dates on Wednesday afternoons. Setting up a system like this takes effort, but it’s worth it. Supervised time is time you won’t need to be so worried. It’s time your child is interacting with peers and learning new skills.

Success stories

Families who provide children with the training and supports they need to manage time alone often see positive results. Their children feel good about being trusted by their parents. They enjoy having some unstructured time each day to do what they like. They take pride in meeting their responsibilities for chores and homework or for caring for a younger sibling. With training, these kids learn how to entertain themselves constructively and how to manage their own time. As a result, they become more independent and more responsible. Because they have watched their parents responsibly balance work and childcare responsibly, they also have an internal compass for doing the same themselves someday.