Parenting can be summed up by a series of key decisions: those you prepare for, and often, the dreaded unexpected. At some point, whether it’s a matter of running to the store for milk, or leaving for work, you’ll likely consider – and possibly agonize – over the “proper age” to let your child stay home unsupervised. Maturity comes at various levels and is usually measured by your child’s behavior and acceptance of responsibility. Indeed, as a rule of thumb, it’s probably not your toddler or teenager you’re concerned most about. It’s that in-between age (pre-teen and younger) that you’re going to weigh with considerable caution.
But what’s the legal precedent for leaving children home alone?
No Easy Answers
Here’s the simple truth: If you’re searching for an easy answer as to what age you should leave your child unattended, you won’t find it. Not even on the Internet. Most of the information assumes a guardian’s use of common sense and a familiarity with the child’s maturity level (and cognitive ability to recognize risks, cause and effect). According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway provided by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, a parent should evaluate the child’s physical, mental and emotional well being when determining whether to leave them home alone or not.
Have a discussion with your child about your expectations, which might include what’s acceptable behavior and what’s strictly prohibited once you close the door and lock it behind you. If your child has a cellphone, make sure that it’s charged and they keep it accessible at all times.
Some states, such as Maryland, Georgia, and North Carolina, suggest age 8, as appropriate. Naturally, these are merely guidelines, and should be treated as such. In truth, most states fail to list an age limit on the books. So long as Child Protection Services (CPS) isn’t contacted by a teacher, neighbor, or other source (because of suspicion of negligence on your part), you maintain the right to make your own decisions in this matter. In certain cases, leaving a 9-year-old child home for 10 hours might constitute as abuse, but an hour or less could be acceptable depending on your state’s laws.
Knowing Your Legal Rights
The good news is most states simply leave the child rearing to the parents with little to any interference. But there are consequences if your actions appear to put the child in danger. Consequently, the language of the law in most states is rather vague, relying mostly upon the parents’ judgment (or lack thereof). For example, in Florida the age is 18, whereas in Illinois the suggested age is 14. According to a New York Times article, a 2003 study found that three million children nationwide under the age of 13 — some as young as 5 — were left to care for themselves for at least a few hours a week on a regular basis. With most families needing the support of two incomes, that’s the reality we live in, and many parents are faced with this tough decision daily.
Talking it Out
Communication is paramount. Setting expectations and even doing trial runs (15 minutes here, 20 minutes there) might help you determine if you’ll actually need to hire a babysitter, or find some other means of support. Long-term absence of a parent or guardian from the home may, in some cases, be unavoidable. The National Network for Childcare has a checklist online that you might want to review.
Leaving a child alone at home is never an easy decision, particularly when it’s your first go-round. If you’re still unsure about what to do, consider contacting your state’s CPS agency for more information.