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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Home alone

BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jacque Tellei checks in on her kids as she passes by her house.

Photos by RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Maxwell Higa, 7, left, Ezekiel Higa, 4, and Macy Higa, 9, rear, play as Mom takes a quick peek.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jacque Tellei, top, says teaching kids independence takes time. Daughters Ezekiel Higa, 4, is at left, with Macy Higa, 9.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Jacque Tellei

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When Jacque Tellei, a Mänoa marathoner, decided her children were old enough to be left by themselves, she left them in two-mile increments.

Tellei likes to run a looping course that begins and ends at her doorstep. She can see her children playing in the front yard whenever she passes the house.

The first time she tried it, her three children were startled to see her back so soon.

"I have done it when they were at home with my husband, so they know how long it takes me," Tellei said. "When they saw me, they said, 'You are here already?' I had some crazy thoughts. I ran really fast."

It's an experience parents can identify with — identifying that point in a child's life when independence, trust and maturity merge into a goodbye wave. And it's never easy.

Finding an emotional comfort zone for parents and children is a crucial part of the equation when it comes to leaving the kids home alone.

Very young children are not capable of being by themselves. By the time they're old enough for high school, however, teenagers are typically able to care for themselves. The gray zone exists for children ages 9 to 11.


There is no state law that marks when a child is old enough, said Toni Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.

"It all depends on if the parent feels the child is mature and responsible enough," she said. "A 6-year-old, we wouldn't advise it — but there is no law against it."

Lisa Hartwell, a clinical psychologist with a family practice in Honolulu, feels 10 is too young, because children that age do not have the maturity to handle an emergency.

But Hartwell says every child is different: "Not all kids are ready just because they meet the age requirement."

The experience of staying home alone can help a child gain self-confidence and independence, but be sure to know how the child feels about the idea, Hartwell said.

Safety is the top concern. Too young and a child won't know what to do if something goes wrong.


Tellei, whose children are 9, 7 and 4, is working her way slowly toward their independence. She's left them for as long as an hour now.

Tellei's family has developed "a fire drill" so that her oldest child can know what to do to deal with an emergency. The daughter also knows to not answer the door or the telephone.

And so far, mom is feeling comfortable — to a point.

"An all-day thing, I wonder," Tellei said. "I don't think they should be left for that long.

"You can only do so many things indoors. You have to go out and then it would mean they have to leave the comfort of my four walls, and then I am not crazy about leaving them."

• • •


Here are questions parents can ask themselves when considering if the time is right to leave a child home alone:

• Does your child show signs of responsibility with things like homework, household chores and following directions?
• How does your child handle unexpected situations? How calm does your child stay when things don't go as planned?
• Does your child understand and follow rules?
• Can your child understand and follow safety measures?
• Does your child make good judgments or is he or she prone to taking risks?
• Does your child know basic first-aid procedures?
• Does your child follow your instructions about staying away from strangers?


• Have a brief trial run so the child can gain experience while you are nearby and readily accessible.
• Discuss how to handle the unexpected, from a stranger at the door to a 911 emergency, and discuss emergency scenarios.
• Schedule a time to talk on the phone.
• Set ground rules about friends at the house, TV watching, the Internet and getting along with siblings.
• Create a list of people your child can call if you are unavailable.

Source: Lisa Hartwell, clinical psychologist