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Leaving Children Alone at Home

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson

Question:
I take care of my six-year-old daughter as a single father on the weekends. I leave her at home alone for a period of 30 minutes on Sunday evenings so I can go out and run, which is my regular exercise activity. My daughter would rather I not do it, but she does OK with it. She knows not to let anyone in, not to play with the stove, or drink something bad under the sink. She has kept herself safe and sound and has either been mildly scared or not scared at all. Some members of my family are against this practice and think I'm abusing my daughter by leaving her alone. What do you think?

Answer:
Even if your daughter seems bright and mature, I think it is unwise to leave her alone. Knowing what to do to be safe does not necessarily mean she would apply that knowledge in a highly stressful or frightening situation. For example, in case of a fire or household accident, emotions take over--especially for a child so young. Or if someone came to the door, they might convince your daughter it's safe to let them in; many parents have been surprised at how easily their young child can be persuaded by strangers to violate the rules parents thought the child knew.

Also, it is important to attend to your daughter's own uneasiness about being left alone. One of our most important tasks as parents is to give our young children a feeling of security. One way to do that is to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to keep them safe.

Recognizing that a regular exercise regimen is important to you, I suggest you consider some alternatives that would take your daughter's comfort and safety into account. For example, how about biking or skating outdoors with your daughter on the weekends--or swimming with her at a local Y or health club? (This would serve the added purpose of engaging her in physical activity, a key to health and wellbeing for people of all ages.)

Or perhaps a neighborhood teenager could care for your daughter on Sunday evenings while you take your 30-minute run. Or you could arrange a play date for your daughter at the home of another child in the neighborhood while you run, then reciprocate at another time to give those parents a break. Another option would be to use a treadmill or mini-trampoline to exercise at home after your daughter's bedtime. Whatever alternative you choose, know that this is in your own self-interest as well as your daughter's. If anything happened to your daughter while left alone at your house, you would never forgive yourself. More positively stated, by keeping her safe and respecting her feelings, you are laying the foundation for a strong, positive relationship as she matures.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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