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HOME ALONE

WHEN IS IT OK TO LEAVE CHILDREN UNATTENDED?

One question frequently asked by parents is “How old should a child be before he can be left home alone?” Often, I’m asked this question when holidays are coming up and parents will be at work, but children won’t be in school. The question is asked even more frequently as summer vacation approaches.

Of course, there is no simple one-size-fits-all answer. This decision is complicated because much depends upon the individual child and also family dynamics. A parent has to consider not only whether his or her particular child is “old enough,” but is ready enough to be left home alone. The issue becomes more complicated if there are younger siblings. Is the oldest child ready to stay home alone and to be “in charge of” the younger children?

Some states have laws specifying an age (e.g., ten years) below which it is illegal to leave children alone. Other states do not set a specific age, but rather, consider the maturity level of the child. In Michigan, there is no state law specifying how old a child must be to be left alone. However, Michigan’s child support laws are also used to regulate the share of child care costs that a non-custodial parent must pay. According to that law, no child care costs have to be shared after the end of the summer when the child becomes twelve. Does that mean that your 12-year-old is old enough to be left alone? Does it mean that a 12-year-old can or should be left home alone with younger siblings? The real issue here is readiness. Is your child ready to stay home alone?

Assessing readiness.

Parents have knowledge about how the child handles responsibility, follows directions, uses good judgment, and feels about being alone. It’s really up to a parent to figure out whether a child is actually ready to be left home alone and how much responsibility the child is ready to assume. Better yet, in two-parent homes, both parents should consider the readiness issue and make the decision after careful examination and discussion. It’s important, as well to ask the child how he or she feels about staying home alone and/or about being left in charge of younger siblings.

Here are some questions for parents and children to discuss and answer when making a decision whether a child is ready to stay home alone:

Readiness checklist.

Parents can use the checklist below as a tool to help them consider whether it is appropriate for their children to be left home alone. This checklist is only a guide and shouldn’t be used as the deciding factor. It’s a good idea to have each parent and the child complete the checklist independently. How does each parent rate the readiness of the child? Does the child rate himself or herself as ready? What important differences are noted between the answers given by the parents and the child? What other important factors (such as younger siblings and family dynamics) should be considered?

Is the child capable enough to handle the responsibilities of being home alone?


Click here for a printer-friendly copy of this checklist

Further assessment

The assessment doesn't stop there. Ask yourself: Is my child mature enough to handle the responsibilities of being home alone? You can use this checklist to help you. Circle the word that best describes how your child does on each of the following


Click here for a printer-friendly copy of this checklist

Evaluating whether this child should be left home alone

After you, your co-parent and your child has answered the above questions, take a look at the answers. If someone answered "no," or "hardly ever" or “never” to quite a few questions, this may signal a lack of readiness for this child to be left home alone.

Each factor needs to be carefully weighed. Perhaps the child needs more information, some training in self-care skills or a class in first-aid to become ready to stay home alone. However, perhaps an alternative care situation is needed instead of leaving the child home alone. Some of the problem areas identified by using the checklist may indicate minor problems that can be easily corrected. On the other hand, responses to the checklist may suggest the child is not yet ready to stay alone. Much will depend upon the environment where the child (or children) will be left home alone. For instance, a mature child who cannot reach an adult by phone, but who lives in a relatively safe neighborhood where the child can easily reach an emergency contact person is at less risk than a child who will not complete tasks, fights often with siblings, and will not talk about concerns.

Is that the end of the analysis?

No. Even if you answered "yes" or at least "most of the time" to all the questions and even if the child is ready, it may not be wise to leave children home alone. Other factors are important in making this decision. You should consider whether the amount of time the child is alone may be too long, whether staying home alone during the day or during the night may pose problems, whether the child must also be responsible for meals and can prepare them, and also whether your neighborhood is unsafe.

After your child has gained the skills and knowledge needed to stay alone, plan a trial period of self-care in order to see how the child adjusts to the situation. It’s important to be up front with your child. Present staying home alone as a temporary arrangement. Tell your child that he or she can choose not to continue if staying alone is uncomfortable or scary. It will be easier for you to end the arrangement if you decide that your child is unable to handle the situation. Building a sense of self reliance is important for those children who are mentally and emotionally ready to stay alone, who have been taught the skills and knowledge needed to deal with the new responsibility and those who can talk easily with their parents about fears or concerns that may arise.

The checklist above may be a helpful tool for parents to use to determine readiness. Bear in mind, however, that this list should be used only as a guide, NOT as the deciding factor. Your family may have specific factors that are not addressed above, such as learning disabilities or physical handicaps that will have to be factored in when deciding whether you should leave your child alone. You might decide to put your checklists in a file so that you can re-evaluate the situation in another 6 months or year. That will help you decide whether there has been a sufficient maturation in your child that changes your mind about leaving him or her home alone.

For other articles about parenting and custody decisions, see my blog Updates in Michigan Family Law.
 

Jeanne M. Hannah, a family lawyer located in Traverse City, Michigan, represents clients in Grand Traverse County, Benzie County, Leelanau County, Kalkaska County, Antrim County, Emmet County, and other selected counties throughout Michigan.  Copyright © 2005 [Jeanne M. Hannah]. All rights reserved. Revised: 04/11/09

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Jeanne M. Hannah, Family Lawyer
Postal address:5922 Deer Trail Drive, Traverse City, Michigan 49684 • E-mail: jeannemhannah [at] charter.net
 

Practice Areas: Divorce  Custody  Parenting Time  Child Support Post-Judgment Modifications  Paternity  Adoption  Personal Protection Orders  Spousal Support  Property Distribution  Pre-Nuptial / Post-Nuptial Agreements Estate Planning Guardianships/Conservatorships  Neglect/Abuse Cases 

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