Home alone: How young can kids safely be left on their own?

A new survey of social workers suggests age 12 might be a safe time for many to start.

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By Jacqueline Stenson

Parents often wonder how old their children must be before they can leave them home alone for a few hours. A new survey of social workers suggests age 12 might be a safe time for many to start.

“Every child is different, of course, and every situation may be different,” said study author Dr. Charles Jennissen, a clinical professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City. “But overall these social workers say that kids really shouldn’t be home alone under the age of at least 12.”

In a nationwide survey of 485 members of the National Association of Social Workers, conducted from October to December 2015, the researchers asked several questions regarding what age would constitute child neglect if kids were left on their own at home for four hours.

Most states do not have laws or guidelines about when kids can be left home alone.

In a scenario where there were no laws and no one got hurt, almost all of the social workers said leaving 6-year-olds home alone was neglect, 83 percent said leaving 8-year-olds home alone was neglect and 51 percent said leaving 10-year-olds home alone was neglect.

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By comparison, 11 percent of social workers surveyed said leaving 12-year-olds home alone was neglect and just 1 percent of respondents said leaving 14-year-olds home alone was neglect, according to the results scheduled to be presented Monday at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in New Orleans.

In another finding, social workers were more likely to consider a scenario to be child neglect for most ages if a child was injured or if there was a state law dictating when kids could legally be left alone. For instance, while 1 percent of respondents said leaving a 14-year-old home alone was neglect if there was no injury and no law, that number jumped to 51 percent if the child was injured and if there was a law. For 12-year-olds, the number jumped from 11 percent to 64 percent.

National guidelines needed

But the definition of neglect shouldn’t be dependent on whether a child is injured or if the parents are violating a law, Jennissen said, suggesting a need for national guidelines or safety laws on child supervision to better guide parents and protect kids.

When the survey asked social workers at what age it actually should be illegal to leave children home alone for four hours, 52 percent said under age 12 and about 83 percent said under age 10.

While there’s a range of opinions among parents about when it’s OK to start leaving kids home alone, Jennissen pointed out that every child is different and some kids under age 12 may fare OK home alone for a relatively short period of time.

“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,” he said. “It depends a lot on the situation.” Some kids may not be developmentally ready to be home alone for certain periods or they may have health concerns that make being left unsupervised a bad idea, he said.

Dr. Suzanne Haney, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, agreed there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation.

“I certainly agree that 12 years of age and up for the most part, depending on how they are developmentally, is probably OK, but there also are 12-year-olds who are not able to handle it,” said Haney, who is the division chief of child abuse pediatrics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. “So it’s really hard to give a safe age because of all the factors that play into it. We have lots of kids who have learning disabilities or cognitive disabilities or behavioral issues and they may be 14 and they’re not safe.”

She advised parents to talk with their pediatrician about whether a particular child is ready to be home alone and for how long.

“A lot of it is going to be a maturity and a risk determination, so things like — do the children know what to do if somebody comes to the door, do they know how to call 911, do they know how to respond to a fire or to somebody breaking into the home?” Haney said. “Clearly a child under 6 is going to have a lot of difficulty dialing a phone, let alone determining if somebody at the door is reasonable.”