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As summer wraps up and everyone gets used to new school-year schedules, it’s a great time to think about whether kids are ready to stay home alone after school. This includes teaching some skills, defining rules and encouraging kids to be in charge even while there is a parent or adult nearby.

North Dakota guidelines for children staying home alone allow 9-year-olds to take on this responsibility for up to two hours during daylight hours, but there is much more to this important decision than age alone.

Are your children prepared for the many situations that may arise? Are they mature enough? Would they know what to do if they came home after school and the door was unlocked? Are they emotionally ready? Will they be too frightened to stay home alone?

Also, consider children’s physical and cognitive abilities. Are they able to think on their feet if a pet gets out of the house? Can they safely reach the microwave to heat a snack? Think about the location of the home and proximity to a trusted adult who could help if your children were in trouble.

According to ParentsLead.org, children must be able to get home from school safely, use keys or a code to get in the door and lock it once inside. They must know their full name, phone number and address in case of an emergency; have access to and know how to use the phone and know when and how to call 911 or a trusted adult for help. Do they know how to safely make a snack, do their homework on their own, follow simple rules, do basic first aid and understand how to tell time?

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Encourage your children to discuss their feelings about being home alone. If they are afraid, talk about it, practice being away for only 10-15 minutes at a time and be open to making care arrangements if your children are not quite ready to stay home alone without fear.

Establish rules. This avoids confusion about what you expect and adds to the children’s sense of security. Consider how they will check in with a parent when they arrive home after school. Can the parent take a call at work? Are the children allowed to use the internet, video games and movies? Discuss food, chores, friends, appliances, activities and other possible scenarios and write out responses.

Have your children practice being in charge while you are outside in the yard or taking a nap. When you and your children feel confident, start by running errands close by and work up to a two-hour time frame. Review the home-alone time each time you return so you can address any issues and make a plan for the next time.

Remember, the ultimate responsibility for the safety, care, well-being and behavior of your children remains with you: the parent or caregiver, whether you are there to personally supervise or not.

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Liz Larson is the parent educator for the NDSU Extension Parent Resource Center Region VII. Larson has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Luther College in Iowa and started with Extension in 2016.

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