Recently, Erin Lee Macke, a mother in Iowa, left her four children (who ranged in age between 6 and 12 years old) alone at home while she enjoyed a 10-day vacation in Germany. When she arrived back home, she discovered her kids were all in protective custody, and she was hauled off to jail. The story set the internet ablaze, as did the question from anyone who read it: why would any parent think this was a good idea? Local law enforcement agreed, with one officer noting: “I’ve never heard of anything like this before. …We have situations where parents go next door or parents may go out for the night, and while that’s not advisable either depending on the age of the children, obviously leaving the country is a totally different situation.” Drastic as the example may be, Macke’s legal troubles raise an interesting debate for parents—what age is appropriate for leaving your child unattended? How young is too young to be left at home without adult supervision? What are the greatest risks? Will I be perceived as a bad parent if I leave my children by themselves? Or am I being too much of a helicopter parent by not giving them more independence?
These are much harder questions to answer than you might think—this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It can require some extensive research and gut-checks before you can make an informed decision. So before you leave your children all by their lonesome, let’s break down the data.
This may prove surprising, but there really isn’t a national standard in the United States for the minimum age a child can be left unattended. As a result, this often comes down to the state level (and many states, shockingly, have no restriction at all). Joyce Nuner, associate professor in family and consumer sciences, child and family studies at Baylor University, says finding this information can prove difficult: “Sometimes it’s hard to find what [your state] guidelines are … but they’re usually found through their Department of Protective and Regulatory services.” These ages can vary widely. For instance, Illinois requires a child be at least 14 years of age, while it’s only 8 years of age in Maryland. Mique, a blogger for Thirty Handmade Days, has tried to take the guesswork out of the equation by creating a chart that shows age laws by state. It also includes a list of suggested times for how long to leave them alone as well (for example, 8- to 10-year-olds shouldn’t be left alone for more than an hour and a half, while 11- to 12-year-olds can be alone for up to three hours). So make sure you have this knowledge in tow. You don’t want to jeopardize the custody of your children.
Every child is different.
Once you’ve figured out if it’s legal to leave your child at home to their own devices, the next ethical question comes into play: should you? Nuner says you can’t always go by child’s age when making this decision: “As a parent, what you’re looking at is the maturity level and temperament of the child. …You can see the maturity level in different ways, such as their ability to follow directions and to understand instructions…” In other words, a teenager doesn’t necessarily hold an advantage over a 10-year-old as far as holding down the fort is concerned. Nuner says that “some of this can be taught, but I also believe some of it is innate in children.” So it’s up to the parents to gauge their child’s development and sense of responsibility before leaving them unattended. Engage your child in dialogue and see if they fully grasp the concepts or tasks they’ll need to handle while you’re away. If they appear to be having trouble, it’s time to take the pressure off their shoulders and find a babysitter.
Now that we’ve covered how to determine if your child is equipped to stay at home by themselves, it’s time to identify the very real risks they may encounter while you’re not home. While most parents worry about things like a child starting a kitchen fire or letting a stranger in the house, a 2014 study by American Journal of Nursing Science shows the biggest risks are behavioral in nature. In the case of children 10 and younger, loneliness, fear and boredom were the main concerns, according to the study. For teenagers, it’s a greater risk of substance abuse and promiscuity. Middle-school-age children left alone for more than three hours per day were more prone to depression and low self-esteem. One of the best ways to avoid all of these risks is to keep your kid busy with homework, fun activities and chores. Boredom is often the gateway to trouble, so a well-planned schedule works wonders.
Despite the risks, there are actually some significant benefits to leaving your kid alone—for both your child and yourself. “First, you’re fostering a sense of responsibility [by trusting your child to self-supervise],” according to WebMD. “And second, you might actually be able to get out for a quiet, kid-free meal with your spouse.” However, a study from the University of California, Irvine shows today’s parents are more anxious than previous generations about leaving their kids unattended. The reason? They’re stigmatized by other parents. Lead author Ashley Thomas notes that society has continually increased their estimates of the dangers of leaving kids home alone “in order to better justify or rationalize the moral disapproval we feel toward parents who violate this relatively new social norm.” This is largely fed by stories of child abduction or severe parental neglect by media, events that, while horrifying, are also exceedingly rare, as the study concluded—“The idea that unsupervised children are in constant danger is relatively new. Just one generation ago, children had much more freedom to explore their surroundings,” says Thomas. Nuner concurs that this lack of freedom can be counterproductive to a child who is mature enough to self-supervise, in which case it can be a very positive experience: “a child can feel a large sense of satisfaction from the experience if given the proper tools.”
Okay, so now that you’ve determined if your child is ready to be left alone while you enjoy a night out or take a late shift at work, it’s time to lay down some ground rules. Nothing brings peace of mind (and reduces risks) like having a checklist to keep your kiddos safe in your absence. Here are the most important things to have in place.
- An emergency plan. Make sure your children know how to secure the house, arm the alarm, and call 911. Go over kitchen safety tips, and include a list of emergency contacts in case you can’t be reached.
- Make sure your child has your phone number handy and that they keep theirs closeby. Also, discourage them from answering any calls from numbers they don’t know. Likewise, limit their social media presence while you’re away. You don’t want the outside world knowing they’re at home alone.
- Make sure any prescription medicine, poisons, flammable materials, household cleaners, firearms and knives are out of reach and locked away tight.
- Most importantly, tell them never to open the door for strangers or to leave the house while you’re gone. If you’re expecting a package, leave a note to place it on your front porch. Any service rep like an exterminator or cable company employee should only be in the home with an adult present. No friends over to the house while you’re gone, either.
- The American Red Cross offers more tips for household safety and an app children can use in case of emergencies.
Finally, make sure to do a trial run. Try leaving the house for about an hour, but stick closeby with your phone handy. Upon your return, ask if they have any concerns or problems, and make sure to run through a list of worst case scenarios for preemptive troubleshooting. It’s very important to not rush this step—if they seem overanxious, worried or confused, then you must make a judgment call on if a second trial run is needed or if they’re simply not ready to be left on their own yet. Don’t put pressure on them. The last thing you want is for them to agree to something they’re simply unprepared to handle. We hope these tips help to give you some clarity of purpose when coming up with a sensible plan for leaving your children alone while you’re away. We know it can be stressful and scary, but it can also be a rewarding process—if handled responsibly. When in doubt, take the extra time and patience to discuss your concerns with your child to make sure they fully grasp all that’s needed for self-supervision. Once everyone is comfortable, you can enjoy a night out without having your stomach in knots.