The idea of older children and teenagers spending time unsupervised is no longer novel, and as many as one third of the nation's school age children spend some time unsupervised during a typical week. At the same time, leaving children home alone raises potential issues of safety and of whether the children are adequately supervised.
Most states do not define by law an age at which children may be legally left at home alone. You may check with your state's Department of Social Services to see if your state has defined an age, or if the agency has a recommendation or policy. You are likely to learn that your state has no specific age at which children may be left at home.
A common recommendation is that children under the age of twelve be provided with appropriate supervision when their parents are away from the home. Depending on age ad maturing, even if old enough to be left alone at home, an older sibling may not be an appropriate caregiver or babysitter for a younger sibling.
There is good reason not to define a specific age at which children may be left at home alone. No matter what age is picked, some children will not be sufficiently mature to look after themselves. It would not be good public policy to effectively grant parents immunity for the consequences of what they know to be poor parenting decisions, merely because a child has reached an age specified in a statute or regulation.
Also, the nature and duration of the parents' absence may significantly affect the age at is is appropriate to leave a child home alone. A twelve-year-old may be perfectly comfortable taking care of himself after school until a parent gets home from work, but that does not mean that he's sufficiently mature to stay at home alone while his parents take a two-week tour of Europe.
Most reports made to the police about unattended children involve younger children. When a parent leaves younger children home alone and the police or child protective services agencies receive a report that the children are unattended, they are likely to respond to the tip in order to verify that the children have appropriate adult supervision and aren't in any danger.
For preteens and teenagers, the most likely reason for protective services or the police to learn that a child is home alone is after accident or other tragedy. The parent may then expect to be asked to explain why the children were left alone, and to justify the decision to leave the children without adult supervision.
When evaluating whether or not a child is old enough to spend time at home alone, it is best for parents to exercise caution. Parents should make sure that their children have:
An appropriate level of maturity to be left alone;
A clear understanding of how to handle emergencies; and
Emergency contact information for people who an assist them in case something goes wrong.
In furtherance of child safety, some people argue that states should take a firmer stand on leaving children home alone. For example, states could establish a minimum age at which children may be left home alone, or create a presumption that children below a defined age are in need of appropriate supervision. However, the effects of any such rules would fall disproportionately on working families, who may have their children spend a period of time alone before or after school, and on poor families who cannot afford child care.
A defined age would also consume the limited resources of protective services agencies, which would have to investigate cases that involve children who actually are sufficiently mature to look after themselves for limited periods of time, distracting them from focusing on cases of bona fide child neglect.
Defining an age also raises questions of how much government interference our society wishes to tolerate in parenting decisions. By way of example, Maryland passed a law that forbids parents from leaving their children unattended in a dwelling or car, and requires that a person be at least thirteen years old to supervise a child who is younger than eight years of age. A Maryland couple became the focus of media attention, for allowing their ten-year-old child to escort their six-year-old around town. The parents were accused of child neglect for actions that, a generation ago, would have been treated as normal parenting.
The proper care and supervision of children, including preteens and teenagers, is a valid subject for child custody litigation. Although courts are usually reluctant to put significant weight on a parent's need to use child care, a court may find significant cause for concern if children are left without any supervision.
Thus, when making a custody decision, a court may be inclined to consider a parent's ability and willingness to limit the amount of time the children will be left unsupervised.
Parents of younger children should consider exploring the possibility of before- and after-school programs, some of which are available directly through the public schools, which may be available at a reasonable cost. Even with older children and teenagers, parents must consider the child's maturity and need for supervision when deciding whether a child is old enough to be left unsupervised, or to supervise a younger sibling.