Family, Kids & Relationships

When It’s OK to Leave Your Child Home Alone, According to Social Workers

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Have you ever left your child alone to run a quick errand, and the whole time you were gone you silently second-guessed yourself? You’re not alone.

Most parents feel uneasy the first time they leave their children unsupervised, but if the child is under 10, a new survey of American social workers says the majority of those surveyed would call it neglect. A smaller percentage would categorize it as neglect even if the child is 12 or 14.

A survey presented at the Academy of Pediatrics annual conference found that a majority of social workers believe children should be at least 12 before being left home alone for four hours or longer. They also said they’d consider it an act of neglect if the child was injured while unsupervised. Furthermore, when asked what the legal guidelines should be for leaving a child alone at home for four hours, “over one-half stated it should be illegal for children under 12 years of age and four-fifths agreed it should be illegal for children under 10 years.”

“We found that social workers who participated in the study were significantly more likely to consider it child neglect when a child was left home alone if the child had suffered an injury, as compared to when they did not,” says Charles Jennissen, MD, FAAP, a clinical professor and pediatric emergency medicine staff physician for the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa. The researchers at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine surveyed 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers who work with children and families. 

Even in cases where a child isn’t injured, nearly every social worker said that leaving a child home alone for four hours was neglect when the child was 6 years old or younger. At 8 years old or younger, more than 80 percent stated that it was child neglect, and when 10 or younger, 50 percent. 

The study authors noted previous research that shows how lack of adult supervision contributes to about 40 percent of injury-related pediatric deaths. Surprisingly there are no national guidelines regarding when it’s considered legal to let a child stay home alone, and most states don’t have laws about it, either. The three that do — Illinois, Maryland, and Oregon — say the ages of 14, 8, and 10, respectively, are when a child is considered ready. 

Aligning with the social workers’ consensus in this recent research, the Child Injury Prevention Alliance also considers 12 to be the magic number. A statement on their website reads, “Most children are not ready to stay home alone until they are at least 12 years old. Even then, children should not be left alone for more than a few hours and never at night.”

Precautions are key when children are home alone

Even over age 12, expects recommend minimizing the time children spend without adult supervision as much as possible, even if it means swinging by the house between errands to make sure everything is OK. 

It’s also important to make sure your child knows how to reach you if they need to. Try setting out ground rules regarding what to do if someone knocks on the door, the phone rings, and other “what if” scenarios. Having a few simple guidelines may help put most parents’ fears at ease.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.