Through all the early years when you have to do everything for your child and pay high rates for babysitters every time you want some time out of the house, you might start to dream of the day you can go out and comfortably leave your child home alone. But when can you leave your child home alone, exactly? Most states don’t have specific laws stating what age children can be left alone, but some do, like Maryland (age 8), Oregon (age 10) and Illinois (age 14). Although all kids are different and parents should make their own decision based on their situation and child’s maturity, this is one area that can be fraught with judgment by other parents and even result in legal consequences. Before considering whether or not to leave your child alone, you should check your state’s laws and state family services website for guidance (state agency names are all different, but you can Google your state and “family services”).
Keep in mind that many states’ laws, however, are vague, so despite perhaps not violating the letter of the law, prosecutors can have wide discretion over whether or not to prosecute a parent for leaving their child alone. In the news this year, more than one mother has been arrested when they were reported to authorities after their children were discovered alone. A mother in South Carolina was arrested after she let her nine-year-old daughter play at a park while she worked, a mother in Florida left her four children, ranging in age from six to eight, at a park while she went to a food bank and was arrested upon her return, and another mother in Florida was arrested after she let her seven-year-old walk to a park alone. In some cases the charges ended up being dropped, but the mother from South Carolina spent several days in jail, temporarily lost custody of her daughter and her job.
U.S. News & World Report cites a 2011 Census report that says that “two percent of children 5 to 8 years old, eight percent of 9- to 11-year-olds and 27 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds are left in self-care,” but given these recent arrests and general public sentiment, it is probably not a good idea to leave a five-year-old home alone, no matter how mature you feel they are. FindLaw has these general age guidelines that might be a place to start:
7 and under – Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards.
8 to 10 years – Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.
11 to 12 years – May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.
13 to 15 years – May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.
16 to 17 years – May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).
Ultimately, you know your child best and can determine when to leave them alone and under what circumstances. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How old and emotionally mature is your child?
- Have they demonstrated mature behavior in the past?
- How does your child react to unsupervised situations? Do they make good decisions?
- How long will they be alone?
- What is the environment like? Are they at home or somewhere else? How familiar are they with the layout? Are there any hazards? How safe is the neighborhood?
- Is there a neighbor or adult friend close by that they can contact in an emergency? Is there someone that can look in on them periodically?
- Are they responsible for other children, or will they be alone?
- Can your child follow directions? Do they know what to do in case of illness, inclement weather, fire or other emergencies? Do they know basic first aid?
- Do they know where you are and how to contact you?
- How comfortable does your child feel about being left alone? Do they feel safe and prepared?
To help your child feel safer and more comfortable being alone, here are some steps you can take.
- Make sure your child knows their full name, address, phone number and your cell or contact number.
- Review a posted list of emergency numbers with them.
- Plan to call your child numerous times while you are gone and inform them that you will be calling to see how things are going.
- Check the locks on the doors and windows, and show your child how to lock them when they are home alone. If you have an alarm system, decide if it will be activated while you are gone and if your child understands how to use it. Does your child know how to get into your house if they are locked out? Do they have a key?
- Let your neighbors (those that you trust) know that your child will be home alone and when. Your child might need to contact them, but it might also prevent undue worry or a call to authorities if they discover your child alone.
- Tell your child that they are not to leave the house, unless it is an emergency or you have prearranged it. Tell them where they should go if there is an emergency.
- Make sure your child does not attempt to use the oven or stove while you are gone. They should not use knives. They should not turn on or light the fireplace. They should not use any toxic cleaning solutions.
- If they need to be fed while you are gone, arrange a meal they can eat cold or put in the microwave, if they know how to use it. They should not call for takeout or have unknown delivery workers come to the house while they are alone.
- Review what they should do if someone comes to the door or if the phone rings. Stress that they should not tell people that they are home alone.
- Go over what they are allowed to do when you are gone and set limits on TV, computer and video game use. A list of chores or other activities (drawing, reading, puzzles) can make the time pass faster.
Consider leaving your child alone for short amounts of time to start and see how they do. It might even be a good idea to drill them on your instructions and see how they follow them. And talk to them about how they feel about being alone after they have tried it a few times.
The first time you leave your child alone will be worrisome, no matter what age they are, but preparing for all situations may make you feel a little better. I will say that growing up, my siblings and friends all seem to remember being given a lot more freedom and responsibility at younger ages, where we were allowed to stay home alone and wander further from home, but as a mother, it is hard to imagine leaving my nine-year-old daughter at home alone yet or let her walk a lengthy distance to the park. I am as much a victim of child danger media hype as anyone else.
After these mothers were arrested earlier this year, Slate conducted a reader survey (6,000 responded) that showed that we have “shortened the leash” on our kids by not letting them do many of the things we grew up doing. All these factors make it difficult to decide when to let your child stay home alone, but as in all parenting decisions, you know your children and your situation best.