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Home alone and other milestones: How to know when your child is ready

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To determine whether or not children are ready for an activity, parents should take into account a child relative maturity in addition to age. (Source: MGN photos) To determine whether or not children are ready for an activity, parents should take into account a child relative maturity in addition to age. (Source: MGN photos)

(RNN) - Parents with older children seek to give their children ever-increasing responsibilities and duties. However, often it's hard to tell when a child is old enough to tackle certain tasks competently and safely.

While laws in some states dictate how old a child should be for certain milestones, much of the time, the decision is left to the parents.

Home alone

In the 1990 hit movie Home Alone, an 8-year-old boy is accidentally forgotten at home and left to thwart would-be burglars while his family goes on vacation. While such a mistake makes for movie pratfalls featuring a lot of physical humor, in real life, leaving a child home alone before they are mature enough can be a terrible mistake.

Experts say there are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether or not, and how long, to allow your older child to stay home alone.

Most states do not have regulations to govern at what age children can care for themselves or others.

The Georgia Division of Family and Children Services suggested that children ages 8 and younger should not be left alone, and children between the ages of 9 and 12 can be left home alone for short periods based on the child's maturity level. Children 15 and older can be left home alone overnight, again depending on the child's maturity level.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, parents can assess whether or not their children are ready to stay home alone by determining if the children are physically and mentally able to care for themselves, can obey rules, make good decisions and whether they feel comfortable or fearful about the prospect of being home alone.

However, parents who live in neighborhoods with high levels of violence might want to think twice about leaving their children alone.

To help children take care of themselves, parents should teach children how to deal with visitors and what to do in case of an emergency, such as a fire, advised Connecticut Child Welfare Services. The child should have a list of numbers where parents or trusted neighbors who are likely to be home can be reached, as well as a house key.

Children should know not to tell anyone they're home alone, not let anyone in the house while parents are away, and not go to anyone's home without permission.

To prepare a child for staying alone, experts suggest at first leaving the children alone for 30 minutes and gradually increase the time.

Babysitting

Children should be at least 13 years old or older before they are allowed to take care of younger siblings and other younger children, and again, that depends on the level of care the younger children need and whether or not the children can coexist without becoming physically violent.

Prospective young babysitters should take advantage of any local certification courses available. The American Red Cross offers a four-hour online course, a six-hour classroom course with hands-on training. The organization also offers a babysitting training course that also offers a two-year certification for pediatric first aid and CPR.

Playing outside alone

Parents used to let children play outside unsupervised, in the backyard and in the neighborhood. Nowadays, such a practice has become rare, discouraged by cultural norms and a perception of it being unsafe despite dropping crime rates in the U.S.

In other countries, like Japan, children routinely walk to school and through their neighborhoods, unsupervised without much hubbub.

A 2012 Salon article blamed a number of factors for the cultural shift in the U.S., including what it termed "suburbanization," a combination of a lack of pedestrian-friendly living spaces and helicopter parenting, factors that seem to feed on themselves. The article argues that, by and large, the neighborhoods at large are safer for children than parents perceive them to be.

Be aware of what the child neglect laws are in your locality and state before leaving children unattended outdoors. Sometimes, what parents don't know can hurt them and their children.

Such was the case for a Tennessee mom arrested in 2012 on felony charges for letting her children play at a local park unsupervised because one of the children was younger than 8. Also in 2012, a Texas woman was arrested for letting her children play outside alone.

Going to a public restroom alone

A busy public restroom can be an uncertain place for unaccompanied children, and not just because of hygiene concerns. Potential threats lurk in the stall in the form of other members of the public.

Parents with children of the opposite sex, unless there is a family restroom available, may wonder when it should be considered safe for a child to go into a public restroom alone. The advice proffered differs from place to place.

The San Diego District Attorney's Office recommended that parents take older children into the restroom with them. However, pediatrician and educator Howard Reinstein said it depends on what kinds of public facilities are being used – a crowded area like a baseball stadium or a more controlled area like a restaurant's bathroom. Generally, he thinks children are ready for solo public potty time between the ages of 6 and 8.

Reinstein said children should avoid going solo in busy restrooms with more than one entrance. Stand outside the door while the child is inside, and if the child isn't out in a timely manner, have a security guard or other trusty individual investigate. Warn children not to talk to anyone or accept anyone's help in the restroom.

Cooking

Cooking together is a great way for families to bond and create memories that can last a lifetime, as well as a meal that will just last a lunchtime.

Not only does cooking with parents allow children to learn a valuable skill that will help them be self-sufficient when they become adults, cooking time offers children the real-world applications of a variety of subjects, including math, science, health and nutrition.

Children can start helping out in the kitchen at age three or four, doing basic kitchen tasks like washing and mixing. As children become more sophisticated, their responsibilities in the kitchen can grow, to include the use of more challenging utensils.

Professional chef Sara Moulton recommended working on children's knife-wielding skills at a young age, starting at first with a plastic knife. As their dexterity and responsibility increases, they can wield sharper knives with parental supervision. She suggested that, with proper practice and supervision, the average child of 7 or 8 can use a serrated knife, graduating to a knife with a 6-inch blade at age 10 before using a regular chef's knife at age 12.

Parents, however, need to make sure children have a safe surface adjusted to their height level on which to practice. Children should also have the proper tools, including hard shoes in case of dropped knives, proper cutlery and cutting boards.

As far as the use of a stove, oven and microwave, fireproofchildren.com encouraged parents to be cautious to avoid potential catastrophes. Parents with older children should instruct them on kitchen safety rules such as keeping handles of pots turned away from the front of the stove, with frequent reminders and have them demonstrate their knowledge repeatedly.

Lawn mowers and other risky equipment

Mowing a lawn can be a sweaty chore, but according to the experts, parents should wait before handing that chore off to their kids.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child should be at least 12 years old to operate a walk-behind mower and 16 years old to work a riding lawn mower. They should have the strength, coordination and good judgment the job requires, as well as instructions on how to do the job safely and supervision until parents are sure they can handle the job alone.

Children who are not old enough to operate a mower should be at a safe distance away from mowers and lawn trimmers in operation to avoid injury and should not be allowed to ride as passengers on riding mowers or garden tractors.

With other dangerous equipment, follow manufacturers' instructions and, of course, take an honest assessment of the child's maturity.

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