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How old should children be before they can be left home alone by their parents?

Experts recommend parents wait until children are 12 or older

Photo (c) NataliaLeb - Getty Images
Leaving kids home alone for the first time can be stressful for parents, and many are unsure when they should trust kids to be by themselves. A new study conducted by researchers from the American Academy of Pediatrics could be helpful in aiding these decisions. 

The researchers determined that if children are going to be unsupervised in the home for more than four hours, they should be at least 12 years old. The team notes that leaving children under that age alone at home could be considered neglect -- though there could be more factors that come into play. 

“We found that social workers who participated in the study were significantly more likely to consider it child neglect when a child was left home alone if the child had suffered an injury, as compared to when they did not,” said researcher Dr. Charles Jennissen. “The level of neglect is really the same whether a child knowingly left home alone is injured or not, and such situations should be handled the same by child protective investigators.” 

What is considered neglect?

The researchers turned to experts on childcare and neglect, surveying nearly 500 social workers who specialized in family and child practices. The survey provided these professionals with several different situations in which children would be left home alone, factoring in age, overall well-being, and what, if any, laws there are regarding children being left home alone. 

Two factors ultimately greatly influenced whether the social workers deemed it neglect to leave children home by themselves: laws mandating a parent or guardian be home with a child and whether a child was injured. 

While some states have created formal legislation around what age children should be before being left home alone, others don’t have anything in writing. When laws were put in place, or when the child was injured, the social workers considered it neglectful for parents to leave their kids home alone up until the age of 14. 

The overall consensus got murkier the older children got, as it wasn’t so clear cut for the participating social workers to deem it neglect when 12- to 14-year-olds were left home alone. Over 80 percent agreed that it was neglect when the child was eight or younger, and roughly 50 percent felt the same way when the child was 10 or under. 

Moving forward, the researchers are primarily concerned about the well-being of young children, as accidents and injuries are more likely to happen when kids are left alone. The team said it would like to see more uniform laws when it comes to the appropriate time to leave children alone. 

“This study recognizes that there are critical connections between safety laws, advocates, and professionals in child welfare, and families with small children,” said researcher Gerene Denning, PhD. “It takes partnership between all those to prevent childhood injuries.” 

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