School is getting ready to start again and that brings up legal age requirements for responsibility as well as ethical issues of kids being home alone after school. How do you know that they are mature enough to be left alone at home? In the past it was always left up to the parents to decide when they were able to trust their kids to be home alone. That was the good old days.
Unfortunately due to the number of accidents, some states have created laws regarding kids being left home alone. What laws you may have in your state is not an easily answered question being that laws can be very, very different from state to state. Furthermore, maturity levels of kids can vary greatly from age to age. Also the safety of your particular neighborhood can be a strong variable in the equation of the safety of kids who are home alone or kids who are latch key children.
So what is a parent to do? How can you be sure that your child is safe as well as legal when they are home alone? It's a question that can really get a parent thinking.
Deciding What's Right About Kids Left Home Alone
The first step to deciding if a child can stay home alone is to see if your state has a kids home alone law. This can be a tricky thing to search for. Many states, like New York, don't specify an age that a child must be before they can be left home alone. The kicker is that they will charge the parents with reckless endangerment if something happens to the child while they are home alone, even if it is an accident. Maryland is one state that does have a law with an age to leave kids home alone. In Maryland, kids 8 and older can be left home alone while kids under 8 must have a reliable babysitter who is 13 or older. Connecticut only offers guidance on the age that they believe a child should be before they can be left home alone. Their guidance is that a kid shouldn't be left home alone unless they are at least 12 and they should be 15 before they should be left with younger siblings. Your state's health department should be able to guide you to what the laws are in your state.
The second step to deciding if you can leave your kids at home is to see how responsible they are. Some parents do test runs by leaving their kids home alone while they run short 20 to 30 minute errands and if everything goes OK, they build up from there. Often times, younger siblings will let the parents know when they feel OK being home alone with their older brother or sister. Since every kid is different, the age that a kid can be left home alone can vary from child to child.
The main concern for kids left home alone is that they can always reach their parents or a trusted adult if something happens. If you don't have a cell phone and if your kids can't call you at work, then they need to be able to get a hold of another family member or neighbor by phone. The ability to reach an adult by phone is critical. Such a case would be presented when a stranger may be knocking on the door and the child can't run over to the neighbor's house to ask for help or advice on what they should do.
What is a parent to do when they don't have the option of leaving their kids home alone? One thing may be to pay a trusted neighbor to keep an eye on the kids left home alone. Another option may be paying a neighbor to watch kids after school in their own home until one of the parents can pick them up. Still another option may be to see if your kid has any friends that have a parents home when they get home from school. This parent may allow other kids to come over until their own parents get home and they may even do it on a trade out basis. If you live in a neighborhood with lots of children, you could see if other parents have the same issues with their kids being left home alone. Many programs have grown in neighborhoods where parents banded together to set up an after school activity for the kids in their neighborhood.
There are also some places that offer after school programs but some places are cheaper than others. Please see our companion article for more ideas on community options. Some include: the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, Boys Scouts or Girl Scouts, karate dojos, neighborhood churches, drama clubs, or a local volunteer organizations such as Teens for Planet Earth.
Opinions differ on the topic of leaving kids left home alone. If the law of your state doesn't set an age limit, then it is really up to each parent's circumstances and the level they have of trust and knowledge of their child. The definite rule for any child who is left alone is that they should always have an adult that they can contact in case something goes wrong or if they have a question or need.