MARYSVILLE, Ohio -- Summertime means schools are out, and kids are in -- at home, often for the first time, alone.
"There's no cut-and-dried rule on how old children should be before parents leave them home alone," said Carol Chandler, educator for Ohio State University Extension in family and consumer sciences. "It's a judgment call. It depends on the child's maturity, self-sufficiency, and ability to handle emergencies."
Chandler, who is based in the Union and Delaware county offices of OSU Extension, recently helped coordinate a 2.5-hour program called "SHARK: Safe Homes and Responsible Kids," offered to Union County families with children who have just completed fourth and fifth grades. A total of 82 children attended the program, which included sessions on:
- Personal Safety, led by the Marysville Division of Police.
- Fire Safety, led by the Marysville Division of Fire.
- Internet Safety, led by the Union County Sheriff's Office.
- Home Calamity, led by a local Boy Scout leader and representative from Home Depot.
- Safe and Healthy Snacks, led by a dietitian with the Women, Infants, and Children Supplemental Nutrition Clinic (WIC) in the Union County Health Department.
- Basic First Aid, led by a local emergency medical technician with the Washington Township Fire Department.
- Severe Weather Safety, led by a science teacher from Reynoldsburg City Schools.
"Children rotated between stations and spent 20 minutes at each one," Chandler said. "They seemed to learn a lot. Each participant got to use a fire extinguisher at the Fire Safety station, and at the Home Calamity station, they learned what to do when the toilet overflows or a circuit breaker pops."
The program was sponsored by the Union County Parent Education Committee, which was formed in the early 1990s after Chandler attended an OSU Extension parenting in-service that encouraged Extension educators to partner with other local agencies to pool resources, avoid duplication of efforts, and address gaps in services. The group has worked together ever since and includes representatives from OSU Extension, area schools, the Help Me Grow program, the Union County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the Pregnancy Care Center of Union County, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Union County Health Department, the Union County Department of Job and Family Services, and the Family and Children First Council.
"Programs like this are eye-opening for both children and parents," Chandler said. "Some of the parents I talked with said that many of the things the kids learned were not things that they had thought to talk to their kids about or show them. Adults often take some of this information for granted, but it may be the first time children ever hear it addressed directly. And parents also mentioned that their children came home with new ideas for things the family should discuss and plan, like a designated meeting place in case of a fire and checking the batteries in smoke detectors. This kind of program shows what local agencies can do when we work together."
The group received $750 from the Union County Foundation to supplement the cost of the program; families paid $5 for each child attending. Chandler said the group used to offer the program with more bells and whistles (with give-away items such as smoke detectors and t-shirts), but larger grants like that have been hard to find in recent years.
"We couldn't find enough money to do it the 'old' way, so we regrouped and did it on a shoestring budget because we thought the info was more valuable than the 'stuff.' We hope to offer this program annually now."
Parents who aren't sure whether their children are ready to be left home alone for short or long periods can find guidance from several sources. "Home Alone: Is My Child Old Enough," (attached as a PDF file), was first printed in 2002 as article OSU Extension's Positive Parenting newsletter. New issues of Positive Parenting are available on OSU Extension's Family and Consumer Sciences Web site (http://fcs.osu.edu; click on Human Development and Family Sciences, then on Parenting; then on Positive Parenting Newsletter).
Also the parenting pages at eXtension.org, Extension's national web resource, offer two fact sheets from the University of Minnesota that parents may find helpful: "Siblings: Are They Ready to Stay Home Together Without You?" (http://www.extension.org/pages/Siblings:_Are_They_Ready_to_Stay_Home_Together_Without_You?) and "Prepare Child Siblings to Stay Home Together Without You" (http://www.extension.org/pages/Prepare_Child_Siblings_to_Stay_Home_Together_Without_You).