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Home Alone

Deciding when to leave children on their own made easier with Sunset Hills workshop

Children's Hospital outreach facilitator Melody DeWeese, left, welcomes Laura and Alec Fehlig and others to a recent "Staying Home Alone" workshop at the Sunset Hills Community Center. photo by Joe Leicht.

February 09, 2018
Any time the words "home" and "alone" are paired, the image that likely comes to mind is that of Macaulay Culkin improvising booby traps to thwart the Wet Bandits in the classic 1990 film.

But as society changes, so do families and their lifestyles. The once-unheard-of concept of allowing minor children to fend for themselves at the house, for a short duration while their parents are out, is finding more acceptance.

Melody DeWeese, an instructor/facilitator for St. Louis Children's Hospital's child life services program, said there is a widely held misconception that state law prohibits children being left at home unattended until they are of a certain age.

"Missouri does not have any statute about that. Other states do, I know Illinois does. But not Missouri," DeWeese said.

DeWeese led a workshop titled "Staying Home Alone" at the Sunset Hills Community Center on Jan. 24, attended by 11 families. The workshop was aimed at helping families establish ground rules to govern what children should or should not do when there is no immediate adult supervision. Families were encouraged to tailor a plan that best matches the parents' and children's comfort levels and abilities.

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DeWeese said that parents must consider whether their child is physically, emotionally, intellectually and socially ready to accept the responsibilities of taking care of themselves for a short period, usually an evening or afternoon.

The workshop began with each family picking a team "name," sketching out a rough layout of their home, and marking an escape plan, should a fire, an intruder or some other issue force the child or children to get out quickly.

"We find that a lot of families who come in for these workshops are stuck as to whether the timing is right for their child to be left home alone. They want to know how well they're prepared for it. We present them with a number of scenarios that will help them work out the answers," DeWeese said. "Establishing a plan and house rules for each family is the most important thing."

Personal communication devices have changed the landscape as far as parents and children being connected while physically separated. Cellphone and computer rules are among the first that need to be hammered out, as the discussion develops.

Some "what to do" questions the families were posed during the workshop included:

If you don't feel well;

The dog gets out of the yard;

The electricity goes out;

Someone knocks on the door.

Chris and Kasey Brown are a combined family with three 10-year-olds.

"At some point, they're going to have to be home alone while we're doing this, that or the other," Chris Brown said. "In our subdivision a while back, our kids thought they heard gunshots. If we had not been at home, what would they have done?"

"You always wonder 'what if something really happened?' Would the kids know a good plan of attack?" Kasey Brown said. "As parents, you worry about these things."

One of the Browns' children, Sofia, had a ready answer for another challenging situation in the event that someone was choking. She knew the general mechanics — if not the official name — of the Heimlich maneuver.

"I came just to get an idea of whether my daughter is ready. If I feel she's ready, then I'm comfortable if she is," said Stephanie Dunfee.

The Sunset Hills Community Center, 3915 S Lindbergh Blvd., regularly hosts seminars dealing with family issues and self-improvement in conjunction with St. Louis Children's Hospital and other community-based organizations. More information on programs can be found on the city's website, www.sunset-hills.com.

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