What is the appropriate age a child can be left alone? If you’re a parent or caregiver, then you’ve probably asked yourself this question. The answer, unfortunately, is somewhat vague.
Many states, including New York, have child protection laws that define child neglect as “failing to provide adequate supervision of a child." However, most states do not provide specific information about what constitutes “adequate supervision.” States such as Illinois, Oregon and Maryland have passed laws that specify an age at which a child can be left home alone. In New York and other states, it's a gray area left to the discretion and judgment of parents and caregivers.
Lynn Yaney, spokeswoman for the agency that handles child welfare in Contra Costa County, California, states:
"A general rule of thumb is that kids under age seven aren't capable of thinking logically and putting cause and effect together," Tanner said. "They are reliant on caregivers to structure their day. Children between ages 7 and 10 years aren't generally ready to self-supervise for an extended period, but in a routine and predictable environment, such as just after school, they can manage. Children 12 and 13 years old should be judged on a case-by-case basis but should not be left alone overnight.”
It's important to remember that these are general guidelines and that every child is different. Also important is the fact that if something unforeseen happens while children are home alone (a fire or a break-in, for example), Child Protective Services may have to get involved.
Leaving your child home alone involves issues of safety, maturity and trust. All children develop at their own speed with different abilities and needs. Talking with your kids and understanding their level of judgment and common sense will play strongly in determining whether or not they are ready to be left alone.
Before allowing your child to stay home alone, you should consider the following:
- Does your child know household safety rules? Would they know what to do in case of emergency?
- Can your child follow directions and solve problems on his/her own?
- How calm does your child stay when things don’t go as planned?
- Do you have a responsible neighbor that your child could contact if an emergency were to occur?
- Does your child know basic first-aid measures?
- Establish steps and practice the routine of when your child comes home from school alone. Does he/she call to check in? Call or check in with a neighbor?
- Set rules about safety, phone, television and computer use, playing outside, chores, homework, cooking, snacks and friends coming over.
- Leave an explicit list of contact information for your child, including:
1) Your child’s full name, address and phone number
2) Your full name
3) Your work place
4) Your cellphone number and contact information
5) Neighbors contact information
6) Directions on how to call 911 or other emergency services in your area
You may choose to start off by leaving your child for a short period of time until he or she becomes confident in staying home for an extended period of time. This break-in period can allow both parent and child to become more comfortable and relaxed in ensuring that the child is home safe when left unsupervised. Don't forget, there are no laws that state the proper age for a child to be left home alone, so talk to your kids, use your judgment, and wait until you're content in knowing that your children can make safe, positive choices.