Leaving a Child Alone: How Young is Too Young?

At some point as parents we’ve all had that moment-at the park, the swimming pool, the grocery store, or just driving along watching the sidewalk, where we see a child or even children all alone, and quietly berate the parents of said child, because that’s just too young for a kid to be unsupervised. We all also know that parents are busy people, who need breaks from time to time, and that not every child develops at the same rate. One parent’s 12-year-old may not be as developmentally prepared to be alone as another’s 6-year-old. This leads to the ultimate question, how young is too young to be unsupervised?

No developmental argument about it…

A child under the age of 5 should never be left unsupervised, especially in public. If your child is playing alone in your yard, and you can see them out your window, that’s another matter, but sending a child 5 or under to say, the park across the street is entirely unacceptable whether your child is Einstein reincarnate or not. In fact, such an action probably falls under child neglect laws. Laws vary by state, and unfortunately, all but two states do not have a set age a child cannot be left unsupervised. This vagueness leaves it up to the discretion of the system as to whether a child was being neglected when left alone, even if it’s just for 5 minutes while you run into the store. The under 5 rule is my general opinion as a parent, and long-term child caregiver. I have indeed seen 7 year-olds that were just fine at home alone for short periods of time, but I have never seen a child under 5 that did not need an adult for one reason or another.

What is the developmental argument anyway?

If you don’t agree with my under 5 assumption, or you have a child older than that, you have to start considering other factors to determine if your child is ready to be playing alone. Be aware that if your child looks younger, or is, you do run the chance of being called in for neglect and being investigated. Most adults have a different view of what age is appropriate, and most of them won’t get a chance to hear your argument about why it’s OK when they see your child. Outside of this, here are some things you should think about:

-Where will the child be alone and for how long? This is a very important factor. For example, trying to decide whether your child is old enough to be left alone at home a few minutes is different than deciding to leave them at the park alone, and likewise deciding to leave them at home overnight alone is different than a few minutes at the park. You should also consider the conditions of the location, for instance an outdoor location could be more dangerous due to weather, wildlife, strangers or traffic.

-How advanced is the child emotionally and intellectually? Another important consideration is the developmental state of the child. On the intellectual side, can the child easily contact any assistance that may be needed for the circumstance? Do they understand the safety aspects of the situation? Can they differentiate right from wrong? Do they make good decisions? Be sure to consider your child’s personality as well. A child that is more of a risk taker or rule breaker may need to wait longer to be alone. Next, you have to factor in emotional development. Even extremely intelligent children may not be emotionally ready to be alone. Is the child afraid to be alone? Are they comfortable with the idea? How did they react to the suggestion?

-How physically capable is the child? Finally, you have to look at physical and medical considerations. Does your child having any medical conditions that could be particularly dangerous? Are they tall enough to reach and dial a phone?

Overall your goal is to determine a single factor from the above information: will my child be safe without an adult present? Try to remember that it is nearly impossible to place an age on that question. Never assume just because most kids, or another kid you know is OK alone at *this* age your child will be too.

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