How to keep latchkey kids safe when home alone

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Millions of children in our country must let themselves in or out of empty houses and supervise themselves for an hour or more each day. These children are sometimes known as "latchkey kids."

Now that school has started, many children will find themselves coming home to an empty house.

In order to be left alone, a child should want to assume the responsibility, should not be afraid to stay alone, and should be able to follow directions.

Parents should make sure their child or children can agree to certain rules, like completing their homework and accomplishing chores. Children should have some ability to solve problems independently.

The simplest thing is to ask a child if he or she wants to stay alone. Most will answer truthfully.

Kids should never cook or bake without an adult. Plan snacks ahead of time so kids aren't cooking alone.

If they use the microwave, they should never leave it unattended. Make sure they only use microwave safe dishes - no aluminum foil!

Other items to stay away from or not to use while home alone are space heaters, irons, toaster ovens, stoves, grills or fireplaces.

Whenever an older child is left in charge, all children in the family should be instructed to be individually responsible rather than relying on the oldest. A child younger than 10 cannot effectively supervise other children.

Make sure your children know what a smoke alarm sounds like. When and if the alarm sounds, your children should know at least two ways out of the house.

Tell them to get out of the house fast and then call the fire department from their cell phone or a neighbor's phone. They should not go back into the house for any reason unless the fire department has given the OK.

Practice fire drills with your children so they are familiar with the sound of a smoke alarm, how to get out and where to go in case of fire.

Make sure kids have a working flashlight available and that they know where first aid supplies are located.

Latchkey kids should keep the doors locked at all times and not open the door to anyone they do not know. They should not mention that they are home alone if they get a phone call or if someone comes to the door.

Make the "home alone" experience a positive one, helping to minimize fears and anxiety by preparing your children with carefully set rules. Write down a daily schedule, divide chores, prepare a phone list and have regular meetings to discuss how things are working.

Cinda Seamon is the fire and life safety educator for the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue.

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