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When can a child be left home alone?

Lehman, B.A. When can a child be left home alone? (1993, January 11). The Boston Globe.


America woke up to the issue of neglected children, as it often does, only when the actions of David and Sharon Schoo became local and national news. Millions watched a white, upper-middle class couple being handcuffed and led through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The story was even more dramatic and puzzling. This educated and successful mother and father had left their two daughters (ages nine and four) at home for nine days during Christmas 1993 with written instructions—while they vacationed in Mexico!

2,700,000 Cases of child neglect were reported in the United States in 1991. Four children die every day, on average, from child neglect or child abuse. And the court protection and adjudication of many such cases are nothing short of scandalous in terms of protecting the welfare of our nation’s children.

All parents, and particularly single moms and dads, are under tremendous pressure these days as they try to balance work, personal and domestic business, and possibly some social life of their own with child care. Parenting sometimes seems too much to bear, and the temptation to leave kids for a few minutes in the car while running into a store, at home while making a quick trip to the grocers, library, or video store often seems justified.

When and how are children ready to be left alone? Studies indicate and experts affirm that children younger than twelve or puberty are not ready intellectually to handle emergencies. Children twelve and below are typically not mentally prepared for formal operational thinking. Their minds operate in terms of isolated concrete facts and procedures. They may, therefore, be quite able to handle the video, the microwave, home chores or personal duties. They may even seem to understand simple instructions.

But if, suddenly, there is a fire, an electrical short circuit, or an intruder at the door, or if they have seriously injured themselves or a sibling, they may panic emotionally and do something logical regarding some isolated aspect of the problem, but tragically inappropriate for the entire emergency. It might make sense for a youngster to hide in a closet when he or she should be exiting the building. Taking time to deliver necessary information by dialing 911 may in some cases be a fatal mistake.

The rule then, is that children under 12, elementary school children, should not be left alone. Some junior high-age children may not be ready to be in charge on their own. And the experts note considerations additional to the maturity and temperament of the child:

  • Presence of younger siblings who may need care.
  • Proximity of familiar and responsible adults.
  • Safety and concern of the neighborhood.
  • Training of the child in question.

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, chief of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital comments, "There are a half-dozen factors that would make one 8 year-old perfectly fine to leave at home for 15-20 minutes, but would make another 8 year-old very dangerous to leave at home for that time." Pediatrician Dr. Eli H. Newberger adds, "I don’t feel that children should be left alone who are younger than 12 or 13. At all."

Kids left alone are often terrified. They often feel isolated; they may become depressed. They may do angry, self-destructive things, like setting a fire or going into the liquor cabinet. Or harming their siblings.

Kenneth D. Herman is a lawyer and psychologist and director of a Children and Law program at Massachusetts General Hospital. He believes that, due to changes in society, parents who may have themselves been left alone at a young age should not continue the practice:

It was fun to be left alone when I was 8 or 9 years old growing up in Denver. I enjoyed the being in charge, searching my parents’ drawers and desk and getting into mild mischief.

These days, I think, an 8- or 9 year-old might be a great deal more worried. I think children are being bombarded with concerns about the dangerousness of the environment, and sad to say, many of them are well-founded concerns.

In Herman’s opinion, kids probably should not be left alone until junior high.

The experts consulted in this inquiry expressed sympathy for low-income and single parents who "may find it almost impossible to secure good after-school care and thus may find it necessary to leave children unattended too soon." Still, they emphasize the importance of supervised after-school care as well as good day care.

Michelle Seligson, director of the School Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College concludes:

What I’m trying to say is children are vulnerable in our culture. That’s where you start from. You don’t start from, ‘How much can I lay on this kid? How much can I ask this child to endure?’ You start from, ‘How much can I do to protect my child?’


  1. How should a youth worker today respond to abused or neglect children? How should one talk with parent believed to be negligent? In what ways are most parents negligent?
  2. Do you agree with the principles and suggestions provided in this article? Are there analyses or advice here with which you disagree? What else needs to be said to parents?
  3. How can children best be prepared for what they must do on their own?
  4. What is causing child negligence and abuse to proliferate?
  5. Who should be responsible for abused or neglected children? How should this be accomplished? How can one work to ensure that the current system does not further abuse or neglect children?


  1. Children, even before women, poor immigrants, and minorities, are the most vulnerable constituency of our society. They must be protected.
  2. The family, too, must be protected and supported. A difficult tension exists between rights of privacy and protection in cases of child abuse and neglect. In some instances, parents have been terribly misunderstood and abused. Young victims need their parents, but their safety is paramount.
  3. Families, community, schools, social agencies, and churches interlock in American society. These systems are interdependent, and must work together, support one another, and challenge weaknesses in a particular system.
Dean Borgman cCYS