How old does your child have to be before you leave them home alone? According to the results of a nationwide survey of social workers, the magic number is 12.
“Every child is different, of course, and every situation may be different,” study author Dr. Charles Jennissen, a clinical professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine said. “But overall these social workers say that kids really shouldn’t be home alone under the age of at least 12.”
The study, conducted from October 2015 to December 2015, asked 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers a handful of questions about when it’s appropriate to leave a child home alone for four hours. The results of the survey will be discussed Monday at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in New Orleans.
The social workers were asked at what age should it be considered neglect to leave a child home alone. They were told to assume there are no laws regarding leaving a child alone (most states don’t have any) and that the child was not injured when left alone.
Only 11% of the social workers said leaving a 12-year-old at home alone for several hours would constitute neglect. Fifty-one percent said leaving a 10-year-old home alone is neglect, and 83% said leaving an eight-year-old home alone is neglect. Almost all the social workers agreed leaving a six-year-old home alone is neglect.
“I think in that 10 to 12 year age, depending on your child and so forth, one can start thinking about whether it’s OK or not to leave them home alone,” Jennissen said, “It depends a lot on the situation.” He suggested instituting some national guidelines to help parents make decisions regarding child supervision.
“Four hours is a long time,” she says. “Longer than a jaunt to the 7-11 to pick up milk. If it were my child, I would not be comfortable leaving him alone for four hours under the age of 15.”
Walfish added a lot depends on the particular child. Of the hundreds to thousands of kids Walfish treats each year, she says there are even some 15- and 16-year-olds she wouldn’t be comfortable leaving home alone. On the other hand, she’s treated 13- and 14-year-olds she would consider leaving at home for several hours.
“Parents have to be vigilant about evaluating each one of their children individually when they make a decision like this,” she says. “What’s good for one [child] might not be good for another.”
Walfish emphasizes a child earns independence and freedom by first earning their parents’ trust. “When your child demonstrates consistently responsible behavior – listening to your directions, completing their homework, doing chores around the house – then you can feel comfortable they have good judgment and wisdom to be self-reliant and home alone.”