The 1990 movie Home Alone may have poked fun at what could happen when an eight-year old boy is accidentally left home alone, yet in reality it is not uncommon for thousands of American children to be left home alone on any given day. Children who are left home alone - sometimes known as "latchkey kids" -- are often left without adult supervision for reasons beyond a parent's control and, in some unfortunate situations, out of neglect or child abuse.
For anyone considering whether it is alright to leave a child at home alone, there are important safety and legal guidelines to consider before leaving any child unsupervised for any extended period of time.
Laws for Leaving a Child Home Alone
Only a couple of states have laws that specify the age when a child can be left home alone, including Maryland (age 8) and Illinois (age 14). However, most states have guidelines with the Department of Health and Human Services or other child protective agencies that test a child's ability to be left home alone. Factors may include the child's age and maturity, the overall safety of the surrounding area/circumstances, and arrangements made to secure the child's safety.
Below are general guidelines to follow when considering the age range for leaving a child home alone.
7 & under - Should not be left alone for any period of time. This may include leaving children unattended in cars, playgrounds, and backyards. The determining consideration would be the dangers in the environment and the ability of the caretaker to intervene.
8 to 10 years - Should not be left alone for more than 1½ hours and only during daylight and early evening hours.
11 to 12 years - May be left alone for up to 3 hours but not late at night or in circumstances requiring inappropriate responsibility.
13 to 15 years - May be left unsupervised, but not overnight.
16 to 17 years - May be left unsupervised (in some cases, for up to two consecutive overnight periods).
How to Know If a Child Is Ready to Stay at Home Alone
It is important to note that no two children are alike, and parents must decide on a case-by-case basis what is best for their child. Therefore, in addition to the general guidelines listed above, a parent or caretaker should consider the following before leaving a child at home alone:
Safety Tips for Leaving a Child Home Alone
Finally, if leaving your child at home alone is a necessity -- at least where older children are involved -- you can follow the following guidelines:
For more information on keeping your child safe, browse a collection of parenting tips and articles.
Questions About Leaving your Child Home Alone? Get Legal Help Today
Is your child too young to be at home alone? That question is never an easy one to answer, but the law in your state does provide guidance. Because your child's safety is of paramount importance, speak with a legal expert who can provide you with a clear answer. A family law attorney in your jurisdiction will be able to explain the laws of your state and help you understand how to comply with them.