Learning Independence: Children Alone At Home

The beginning of the elementary school years is a turning point in the life of both a child and his parents. Not only does a child at this age have to definitely master some skills. No, it will now also inevitably come to the point where a six- or seven-year-old child will have to face a high degree of personal responsibility. This means that from now on the time may come when the offspring stays at home alone for certain periods of time. But what measures need to be taken then? What about safety and what are the limits? This and more is answered in the following article.

Parents know that the state keeps a watchful eye over families. The background, of course, is always in the best interests of the child. And it should come as no surprise that leaving children alone is also regulated to some extent.

Basically, the so-called duty of supervision applies according to § 1631 of the German Civil Code. Primarily parents, as well as other persons authorized to supervise (such as teachers or educators), are obligated to ensure that a child is protected or supervised at all times in such a way that it does not cause harm to itself or others.

However, this does not explicitly give rise to an obligation of permanent supervision. At this point, the legal situation is richly schwammig formulated. Section 1626 of the German Civil Code states: “In caring for and raising a child, parents shall take into account the child’s growing ability and growing need to act independently and responsibly”. And thus responsible, even law-abiding, parenting includes teaching the child the skills it needs to behave “independently and responsibly” without constant supervision.

2. The Time Frame

Clearly, there is a world of difference between a first-grader who is left alone after school for three-quarters of an hour until a parent arrives and the same child who, however, remains without supervision until 5:30 in the evening. The former is normal and helps the child become independent. The latter, if it happens regularly, borders on neglect and is irresponsible, to say the least.

In this sense, in elementary school, there should be a maximum time that the child should be alone and that should only be exceeded in exceptional situations. This has less to do with the fact that a child at this age would be more likely to do something wrong beyond the time frame. Rather, it is the recognition of psychosocial realities: a first-grader knows that he or she is entrusted with and required to exercise a degree of independence that is appropriate for his or her circumstances.

Conversely, however, the child is nowhere near independent enough to be able to occupy himself for extreme periods of time (by his standards), to provide for himself. Children who are poorly able to be alone or for whom the age-appropriate time periods are frequently exceeded can develop negative consequences from this, up to and including anxiety disorders.

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Manche Kinder können nur schlecht alleine bleiben
Some children have difficulty staying alone

The following guideline is only an approximation that parents should monitor closely and adjust downward if necessary:

  1. Grade: 1 – 1.5h.
  2. Class: 1.5 – 2h.
  3. Class: 2,5 – 3h.
  4. Class: 3.5 – 4h.

It should be emphasized that the to values should only be exhausted at irregular intervals. The minimum values are optimal – and if they are undercut, all the better. However, it is also true that even households where there are always others at home should practice at least a minimum regularly. Otherwise, the child is missing an important learning component.

3. A Cautious Approach

In the past, the practice was often that a child was fully cared for until it entered elementary school. On that day, the child was suddenly thrown in at the deep end. Today we know that such an abrupt approach too often does not produce the desired independence, but the exact opposite: the child gets a feeling of being abandoned.

The contemporary approach is much gentler. However, it also requires that parents introduce their offspring to staying alone over a longer period of time. After the age of four, a child can certainly be left alone for ten or fifteen minutes, provided the home circumstances are right (see the chapter on safety).

But before parents leave the house or apartment for even a few minutes, they should observe how the child behaves when he is on his own but not really alone.

  • Can he occupy himself in peace?
  • Does he seem calm, perhaps even cheerful, even if he doesn’t know exactly where Mom and Dad are?

If so, you may assume, at least in theory, that he is ready. However, if it is a child who is afraid of separation and does not want to leave his parents’ side, you first have to do some basic work. This usually consists of caring for the child a little less intensively for a few weeks to give him the feeling that he is already big.

And when the first attempts to leave the child alone are made, the basics must be right. However, they are not only a guideline now, but should also be maintained at elementary school age:

  1. Explaining to the child why he or she will be alone – positive reinforcement can be useful here, “Let’s see if you’re that big yet” (and later in elementary school) “you’re such a mature young lady already, mommy doesn’t have to watch you all the time”.
  2. Communicate crystal clear how long the child will be alone and when the parents will return. If it has not yet learned to read the clock, a normal egg timer can be set – it is, after all, initially a maximum of fifteen minutes.
  3. Meticulously stick to the time. If ten minutes have been announced, the door should open no later than when the egg timer rings. This has a lot to do with trust and can do lasting damage to efforts if there is parental indiscipline.
  4. Ensure that the child agrees. Never assume simply because of age and maturity level. The child must actively agree and know what is coming.
  5. Especially from elementary school on, when really out of reach, there needs to be a “strike force” of neighbors, relatives, and/or friends that the child can turn to in case of doubt and who will be there within minutes. For this purpose, it is essential to give a front door key to at least one neighbor who is really trusted.
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If a child moves along this path, it can naturally develop independence, and being alone is not a horror scenario. Secondarily, however, if it is really started at the age of four, there is also an invaluable added value: by the time elementary school begins, the offspring have already come to know being alone as a normal state. That’s one less thing they have to relearn during those stressful days at the beginning of the first grade, which is already marked by many changes – and that also takes a lot of stress off the parents.

4. The Security

Most families, even if their child has not yet been confronted with staying alone, will have done a lot to childproof their four walls. This is a good basis, but unfortunately no more.

Wohnung kindersicher machen
Childproofing the home

Because whether you’re just out on the street or a few miles away: The mere fact that one is unequally farther away in terms of space and time means that the previous safety measures are not sufficient. Because they all rely on a supervisor as a fallback level or are not designed to withstand an unobserved, curious child for long.

Much can be done here. Some are technical solutions, others are classic setting up and following rules. We want to start with the former. To do this, it is first necessary for parents to realize that when a child is left alone, even things that had actually been checked off – such as electrical outlets – can become a danger.

Maybe the six-year-old wouldn’t mess with them as his three-year-old self did. However, this is of no use if the offspring is playing with the water pistol at home alone – unobserved – and accidentally hits the can. To counter such situations, it is urgently recommended to improve safety through additional measures, for example (also) through the use of digital helpers.

These include not only power outlets, but entire electrical circuits that parents can turn off from a distance with a smartphone finger swipe. They’re digital smoke and heat alarms that can alert the parental cell phone. It’s wired that can be tucked behind baseboards instead of across the floor. And yes, it’s cameras these days, too. This may not have much to do with freedom for the child but simply gives an enormous safety plus.

In general, when it comes to technical protection, nothing should be considered too far-fetched by parents, as dangerous situations can always arise that need to be avoided. On their own, many children become much more adventurous and go exploring. Some other suggestions:

  • Where there are a particularly large number of dangers lurking (such as a workshop or ironing room), lock the door and take the key with you for simplicity’s sake.
  • Other dangerous things or things that are not conducive to the child’s well-being should also be under lock and key – children with plenty of time will find all the hiding places. This includes media with delicate contents such as medications, alcohol, cleaning products, lighters/matches, and pointed or sharp objects.
  • Computers and tablets should be childproofed accordingly. Special programs are available for this purpose, but good passwords also help.
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Mädchen sieht fern
Girl watches TV

But technical security can only ever be one aspect. It is much more effective for a child to act responsibly. This includes rules and prohibitions on the one hand, and on the other hand, the child’s urge to discover should be satisfied before the “emergency” occurs:

  • Under no circumstances should the child be locked up at home so that he or she is not trapped in an emergency. Therefore, it must have learned not to open the door to strangers. Unfortunately, children are very trusting in this respect. The only way to get around this is to make them clearly aware of the dangers. From elementary school on, kids are ready to understand what burglars and kidnappers do. Very important: children should never identify themselves as being alone at the door.
  • In the weeks before school starts, parents should offer the child the opportunity to be shown or explore everything in the house that they are particularly interested in, in their presence. The unknown exerts the greatest attraction and thus danger. If the six-year-old knows what is in the box on the top bookshelf, he will not try to climb up there on his own.
  • The rule must be that the child must keep his hands off anything he might find that could be dangerous. This is especially true for those things that cannot be locked away (such as the stove).
  • The child needs to know exactly what to do if something has happened or even if they are scared. To do this, a cell phone or landline phone should be readily available. Of course, the child must know how to operate the equipment. And there should always be a piece of paper with the most important numbers next to it – don’t just rely on the phone memory, a nervous, anxious child may not remember how to use it.
  • If alone time is right after school, the child should have a meal. This can be warm food on the table or ready with helping neighbors.

In addition, parents should give the child the opportunity to occupy himself. Boredom produces the urge to discover. The urge to discover sometimes produces accidents. For this purpose, the child should have a crystal-clear “if-then logic” at his or her disposal, which he or she can work through and whose observance can be checked. Such as:

“When you get home from school, your food is on the table. After that, you can watch TV for 15 minutes (which can be set on the timer today) and then do your homework. Usually, I am at home then. If I am not, you can still play with your Legos”.

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Junge macht Hausaufgaben
Boy does homework

It’s true that this doesn’t offer one hundred percent security either. There is never any such thing. But a well-behaved child will have everything he needs with these rules. However, parents should not forget one thing, especially in the early stages: It is sometimes a mammoth task for the child. When dad and mom return and everything went as agreed, praise is needed.

5. Please Avoid

With the previous points, a child can get by just fine on his own. However, it is often the parents who spoil an actual success story by being too anxious and/or overprotective.

An example: The apartment is secured with WLAN cameras – legally, this is perfectly legal. The mother sneaks a peek via cell phone from work and sees that her son, who is coming home, is carelessly throwing his jacket on the floor in the hallway instead of hanging it on the hook as agreed. Immediately she calls home.

Of course, this moderation may work. But for the child, it creates a feeling of “Big Brother is watching you”. Accordingly, it may then be alone at home, but it will not really feel, think, act alone. It will always be in the belief that the parents are already watching somehow. This in turn means that the complete learning effect of this independence is lost for a time.

However, excessive intervention is not the only thing parents should avoid:

  • No one from the “intervention force” should simply drop by at home unannounced. Unless there is danger, the child should really be alone.
  • If the elementary school child is the older member of a sibling pair, he or she should not be expected to watch the younger sibling. That would be too much of a good thing.
  • Kids should not be alone in the late evenings or at night. Only during the day or in the hours before.
  • If the time when the parents stay away becomes longer for reasons that cannot be influenced (traffic jam…), the child should never be expected to do this just like that. In this case, at least one phone call should be made and in case of doubt, the child should be offered (but not forced) to go to a trusted person.
  • If the child suddenly realizes – and this can happen even after a few weeks – that he or she is not comfortable being alone after all, this concern should not simply be brushed aside. If parents want to take advantage of the start of school to work longer, the necessary steps should only be taken after a few months of school, when it is really clear that being alone will work.

Experienced parents will have noticed: Leaving alone is like any other point in parenting. It works best if you approach your child, listen to him, and give him clear rules. And if you then have a little faith in your first grader’s independence, then no disasters will happen, you’ll just get an independent child who can also be the little master in the house at times.

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