When to Leave Kids Home Alone?

September 1st, 2011 by Susan H. Greenberg

Making sense of child protection laws and what’s right for your children when it comes time to leave them home alone.

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The Responsibility Project

It’s 4 o’clock on a Tuesday and I need to take my 13-year-old son to his guitar lesson. I tell my 8-year-old daughter, happily ensconced in a Sponge Bob rerun, to put her shoes on so we can go. “No,” she says. “I’ll stay here.”

“You’ll be all by yourself,” I say. “I can’t leave you.”

“It’s fine,” she says. “You’ll only be gone a few minutes.”

I waver. She doesn’t mind; why should I? She has the dogs for company and neighbors at home on both sides. I think of all the things that could go wrong: a fire, a burglar, a concussion. I could get a flat tire, or in a car accident, and be gone much longer than 15 minutes. But I decide those risks are extremely low, and that the greatest danger is that she will eat a half-dozen Popsicles or spill orange juice all over the counter.  

So I leave her. I am back within 15 minutes, and she has not budged from her chair. The dogs are lying on the floor at her feet. But did I act irresponsibly, even illegally?

Like most states, Massachusetts, where I live, does not specify an age at which children legally can be left home alone. But the laws protecting children from abuse and neglect certainly apply to any caregiver who leaves an infant or young child home alone for prolonged periods or without adequate care. The law defines neglect as “failure by a caretaker, either deliberately or through negligence or inability, to take those actions necessary to provide a child with minimally adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision, emotional stability and growth.”  According to my state government website, anyone who abandons a child younger than 10 and “fails to perform” the “contract for its board or maintenance” faces up to two years in prison, or up to five if the child dies as a result of the abandonment.

Only a few states have minimum age requirements on the books, and those that do often change them. Linda Spears, the vice president for policy and programs at the Child Welfare League of America, a coalition of public and private child-welfare organizations, says a state will sometimes add a minimum age requirement in response to a neglected child’s death and then later remove it. “I suspect it isn’t legislated for the same reason a lot of child-welfare policy isn’t: because you can’t name every circumstance,” she says. Stipulating an age requirement, she adds, can have a converse effect, in which parents use the law to justify leaving any child home alone, even one who is immature, terrified or physically or mentally handicapped.

State guidelines and child-care manuals urge parents to use careful judgment when deciding whether or how long to leave children home alone. The Safe Kids USA website says that generally children are “developmentally” ready to stay home alone when they’re 12 or 13, but urges parents to use their own discretion. The Washington-based Child Welfare Information Gateway produces a booklet suggesting that parents consider such factors as maturity, the ability to follow rules and safety skills before leaving any child home alone. It also proposes that families stage a trial run, role-play different scenarios and establish clear rules to help prepare the child.  The state of Illinois produces a similar pamphlet called “Preparing Children to Stay Alone,” which spells out similar measures. First and foremost: “your child should indicate a desire and willingness to stay alone.”

I definitely passed that threshold, though few states seem to look favorably upon leaving an 8-year-old alone for any reason. But is there a difference between leaving her for 15 minutes while I run an errand and letting her sit in an empty house for three hours after school until I get home from work? By most accounts, yes: Officials who evaluate abuse and neglect cases consider many factors, including the children’s age, the parents’ intentions, the circumstances and the length of time left alone.

Still, it takes only a split second for a chair to topple over backwards or a fire to engulf a room.  “It is a risk,” concedes Spears. “If something had happened, you would have been charged with neglect. But if someone had called and reported you, and you were home by the time the authorities got there, they most likely would have determined that you were only gone for a short time, your daughter was fine, and no action would have been taken.”

The issue is especially touchy because it revolves around the question of affordable child care. Parents who leave young children home alone often do so because they have no choice: they must go to work before school starts or come home after it ends. “Really good quality child care is hard to find, and all child care is incredibly expensive,” says Spears. “Solidly middle class families pay for child care. Working poor families get stuck: they can’t pay, but they have to work.”

Just recently, a Wisconsin woman was arrested for child neglect after she left her 6-year-old and 2-year-old home alone while she went to work. A postal worker noticed the children were unsupervised and contacted the police. If the woman is convicted, she could face an 18-month prison sentence and a $20,000 fine. In Florida, a woman was arrested after she left her three kids – 6 years old, 3 years old, and 4 months old – home alone for an hour while she went shopping. Her rationale: it was too hot to bring them along.

It’s not clear that setting a state or national legal age minimum would have helped these children, or their parents, whose judgment may be crippled by selfishness, desperation, immaturity or substance abuse.  But it probably would compel people like me to drag my daughter along to her brother’s guitar lesson. It would no doubt mean more complaining on her part – but also much less risk.   

Susan H. Greenberg is a writer, editor, teacher and author of the blog Unvarnished Mom.