Most parents understand that it is always wrong to leave an infant or toddler home alone while you go out – even for a quick run to the store. But when is a child old enough? Surprisingly, there aren’t many laws to guide parents who aren’t sure if their children are old enough to stay home alone. About 15 million children in the United States are home alone after school every day.
Enough to be Alone: State laws vary quite a bit. Some states have not set a minimum age. Others have set a minimum age of 10 years old, while states like Maryland do not allow parents to leave a child under the age of 8 alone at home or in a car. Some states set a minimum age for babysitters as well. If you aren’t sure about the law in your state, contact the state department of health or the child services agency for information.
At what age is it okay to leave my children home alone? Office of Children & Family Services is often asked questions regarding the appropriate age to leave a child alone, or what age is appropriate to allow a child to begin babysitting. There are no straightforward answers to these questions. All children develop at their own rate, and with their own special needs and abilities. Some children are responsible, intelligent, and independent enough to be left alone at 12 or 13 years of age. Likewise, there are some teenagers who are too irresponsible or who have special needs that limit their ability to be safe if they are left alone. Parents and guardians need to make intelligent, reasoned decisions regarding these matters.
Below there are some items for these decision-makers to consider before leaving a child alone. Be aware, this is just the beginning of issues to consider. It is not an all-inclusive checklist to guarantee intelligent and reasoned decision-making:
1. Consider the child: How mature is the child? How comfortable is the child with the circumstances? What has the child done in the past to show you he/she is able to take on this kind of responsibility?
2. Consider the child’s knowledge and ability: Does the child know how and when to contact emergency help? Is the child able to prepare food for him/herself? Are there hazards to the child in the environment such as accessible knives, power tools, a stove or oven?
3. Consider the circumstances: Where will the child be when left alone? How long is the child to be alone?
These same questions should be asked when considering whether a child is old enough to baby-sit. However, when considering a child as an adequate baby sitter, you must evaluate these factors for both the potential baby sitter as well as the needs of the child or children who will be cared for by the baby sitter. A child of 12 might be fine alone for two hours in an afternoon. Yet, the same child may be incapable of responsibly caring for a 5-year-old for that same period of time.
The law surrounding leaving a child home alone is complicated especially when something goes wrong. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic.