For some families, there's no way around older kids being home alone after school. This isn't a new phenomenon, but what is new is a host of new technology and devices that make it easier for parents to keep track of and increase the safety of their children in the hours between school and when parents get home from work. And it goes way beyond just having a home security system.
While there is no set or agreed-upon age for when it is appropriate to leave kids home alone, the U.S. Children's Bureau does offer some guidelines with regard to evaluating maturity levels in children. Most parents can't even rely on the law to determine when it's OK to leave kids home alone, as according to the Children's Bureau, only three states (Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon) have such laws on the book.
Here are some tips, technologies, and hacks to help parents keep kids safe when they're home alone after school.
Before you decide to leave your kids at home, consider their level of maturity. While some kids may do well being left alone, not everyone would be comfortable in this type of setting.
Ask yourself these questions to determine if perhaps you need to make alternate plans:
One of the best ways to prep your child to stay home alone is to have an open and honest discussion with them. Before the big day comes, sit down with your child and go over what to do in an emergency. Even better, have them write down the answers to these questions themselves, so they're sure to remember. Want a printable version of these questions?
A smart home camera is one way to help keep your kids safe and give parents some extra peace of mind. "Parents today are living in an interesting time: teeter-tottering with how and when to use tech to keep tabs on their children," says Ben Nader, general manager of video solutions at Ooma, which makes smart cameras. With DIY home security cameras increasingly making their way into homes, Nader says parents can use these cameras to keep tabs on their kids' whereabouts. Certain cameras, such as Google Nest cameras, are even unrolling features that allow cameras to detect familiar faces, technology that can give parents additional insight into the comings and goings at home while they're away.
A doorbell camera is another option. "Parents tell their kids not to answer the door, but kids tend to ignore this rule when the uninvited guest might be a friend," warns Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer with BeenVerified, an online background check platform. "While peepholes are a safety precaution, they do not prevent strangers from seeing your child through adjacent windows, nor can some children reach the peepholes."
He recommends a smart doorbell camera or video doorbell that detects movement approaching your front door or someone ringing the doorbell and sends a notification to you. This allows parents to stay on top of visitors to the front door while they're away and kids are home alone. "Nest, Ring, Swann, and Arlo are just a few of the many brands offering such surveillance devices that connect to your smartphone via Wi-Fi and app," he says. "Some smart doorbells even have a feature that allows homeowners to communicate with their surprise house guest from a remote location."
While a smart camera is great when kids come home from school, they don't offer much for the time between a kid leaving school and getting home. A GPS watch for kids gives parents additional visibility into a kid's journey home. These watches have GPS capability that allows parents to look up the exact location of the watch, so as long as a kid is wearing the watch, the parent can make sure they're where they need to be. Another common feature for these watches allows parents to program a set number of phone numbers the child can communicate with by phone call or text. Sten Kirkbak, the co-founder of XPLORA, a European maker of GPS watches for kids, points out certain watches can also specify geolocated safety zones. "If the child enters or leaves the area, the parent will be notified," Kirkbak says.
In lieu of getting a GPS watch, Lavelle recommends downloading a tracking app. "Having a tracking app installed on a smartphone will let you know your kids' exact location; thus, if there is any trouble (like taking the wrong turn home), you can give them the help they need." If your kids are old enough to have smartphones and they're responsible enough to keep up with them, this is one of the most inexpensive ways to monitor their location. A few such kid-tracking apps include Footprints, AngelSense, and Life360.
Kids often come home from school and jump on the computer -- and the Internet -- to start doing homework. However, the Internet can also pose risks if kids are unsupervised when using it. "With no one there to monitor what websites they're accessing, kids may come across inappropriate content that is not healthy for young eyes to see," warns Lavelle.
Also, you don't know who they may be interacting with online. "Children are susceptible to trusting strangers they meet online and giving out personal information," he says.
"Such software as K9 Web Protection, Norton Family Online, and Net Nanny allows parents to control what their children have access to on the internet." Lavelle also recommends parents set timers for how long kids can play games on the computer, to limit eye strain and balance online time with more active time.
"With the number of children and teens online growing year after year, instances of cyberbullying, sexting and online threats continue to flourish just as quickly," says Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer at Bark, a parental internet monitoring company.
A home security system can help protect kids from intruders and also detects smoke and carbon monoxide leaks. However, kids who are home alone will need to know how to disarm the system to reduce false alarms and also communicate verbal passwords to the alarm company. If law enforcement is routinely dispatched to a home for no reason, it could result in penalties and fines depending on local ordinances.
While technology can help keep kids safe when they're home alone after school, communication is also crucial. For example, Kirkbak recommends quick morning chats before school. "These chats are a great way to ensure your kids know where they need to go when the bell rings," he says. "These briefs help reinforce the message that good communication between kids and parents regarding each other's whereabouts is important." These kinds of conversations can help kids understand they shouldn't make spontaneous decisions to stop off at a friend's house without asking for permission or communicating their plans.
Also, if this is the first time your kids are staying home alone, you may need to ease them into the process. "Since processes like deactivating the internal alarm might be too stressful to begin with, maybe consider turning that off for the first couple of days until they have built up more confidence," Kirkbak says.
"You might also consider small things, like keeping some lights on in the hallway to avoid a completely dark house on return, or perhaps leaving on the radio and leaving out a little surprise, to help create a more welcoming and homely atmosphere for a child to come home to."
Sten Kirkbak, co-founder of XPLORA, a European maker of GPS watches for kids.
In addition, it's a good idea to have a backup plan. For example, even if you use smartphones or smartwatches, consider what would happen if your kids lost their devices. One way to address this is to print physical copies of phone numbers that can be posted on the fridge or put in your kids' backpacks, so they will always have a way to contact someone in the event of an emergency.
It could also be a good idea to make sure your kid knows to go to a trusted neighbor who can provide assistance when circumstances merit.