When Is It Okay To Leave Kids Unsupervised?
There’s a lot of debate surrounding the appropriate age to let kids play outside, walk to school or stay home alone. Here’s what the law dictates and what parents actually do…
A few weeks ago, a mom I know posted in an online mothers’ group. “My ex left my eight-year-old alone at home for about 10 minutes while he went to the store the other day. Eek! What age do you think is appropriate to leave kids at home?”
Several well-meaning moms immediately chimed in that eight was too young and she should be furious with her ex. I was about to agree, but then I thought about it for a few minutes and answered, “Some people will tell you it’s insane while others will say it’s fine… parents are so different and kids too. The important thing is that you feel comfortable with whatever you and your ex decide together. Setting time limits for leaving her alone is probably wise and running through different scenarios of what to do in an emergency. If she’s mature, small amounts of time alone might be fine.”
The mom thanked me and admitted that while she felt her child was probably mature enough, she feared the judgment of other parents and had been seeking some validation.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- Two incidents that made me question when I should leave my kids unsupervised
- Crime statistics today versus 25 years ago (you’ll be surprised!)
- What the law says about leaving kids alone at home, in the car or outside
- How to figure out what age is right for your child to be alone
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Here’s why I gave the question of leaving kids unsupervised some thought…
I considered my friend’s question carefully before answering because of two incidents.
The first had occurred a few months earlier and left me seriously rattled. I’d left my almost five-year-old twins in the car for literally two minutes as I walked my eldest daughter to the gate of her school.
When I got back to my car, there was another mom waiting there. She started berating me for leaving my kids in the car and read my license plate number into her phone. “My mother works for Child Services and I have her on the phone right now!” she yelled.
I gave her a piece of my mind and drove away, but I had to stop by the side of the road because I was shaking and crying so hard. I questioned whether I was a bad mother for weeks (despite many of my friends reassuring me they did the same thing all the time) and I’ve never left my kids in the car again.
The second instance was a debate with my husband. We’d been allowing the twins and their seven-year-old sister to walk to a street library a few hundred feet from our house on their own. They had to cross a quiet suburban street, so we’d been coaching them to look both ways. I felt mildly uncomfortable about it, but I decided it was a good exercise in independence.
I came home one day and the girls weren’t there. My husband told me he’d let them go for a scooter ride by themselves in a safe area near our house. I panicked a little, but the girls arrived just then. They told us one of the twins had fallen over and a “nice man” had helped them. I shot my husband dagger eyes.
When we discussed it later, he said we needed to start giving them a little independence. “When I was a kid, we played unsupervised all day and no one worried about it,” he argued. “We have to be careful not to helicopter them.”
I saw his point, but I argued that we prepared kids a lot better back then. “By their age, my dad had told me to look both ways before I crossed the street and warned me about strangers about 50 times more than we’ve told our kids,” I said.
I was arguing with my hubby because the voices of many cautious moms I knew were ringing in my head, but deep down I wasn’t sure how I felt. Were they ready or weren’t they?
Crime statistics have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years
With all the scary news headlines that are thrown at us daily, it’s easy to assume that crime has shot up since we were kids. But the contrary is true: Between 1993 and 2018, the rate of violent crime decreased by 71 percent.
As for crimes against children, only 1 percent of abductions are committed by strangers and only 7 percent of sexual abuse cases involve a stranger.
What the law says about leaving kids unsupervised or alone
In Japan, children are taught to catch public transport to school from the age of six. Swiss parents also send their kids off on foot as soon as they start school. In Spain and Germany, experts encourage parents to let their children walk alone to build their independence.
So, why are Americans so horrified at the idea of leaving kids unsupervised and what does the law say about it?
- Leaving a child alone at home: Only three states have laws that dictate when you’re allowed to leave your child alone at home: 14 years old in Illinois, 10 in Oregon and 8 in Maryland. Many other states offer parents guidelines to help them decide when their kids are ready and may consider inadequate supervision to be neglect.
- Letting children walk to school or play outside unsupervised: While most states don’t have laws governing this, letting kids go outside by themselves when they’re too young or for too long can also be considered neglect. In 2018, Utah passed a free-range parenting law that redefined neglect to give parents more freedom to choose when their kids are ready to go out unsupervised.
- Leaving a child in a car: 20 states have laws against leaving a child unattended in a car. In any state, leaving a child in a car that’s too hot is likely to be considered neglect.
What age is right for your child to be left alone?
Unless you live in a state that has specific laws dictating when you can leave your child alone, the decision is in your hands.
If you feel your child is mature and responsible enough to be left alone, here are a few guidelines you might want to follow:
- Discuss what they should do in an emergency and engage in role-play.
- Make sure your child knows your address, phone number and the phone number of an emergency contact person.
- Start by leaving them alone for short amounts of time, such as 10 minutes, and build up slowly.
- Ask a neighbor to keep an eye out on your child when they’re at home alone.