Proper age for leaving children home alone?

Age is Just a Number
Did you know…?
There is no legal age restriction for leaving children home alone in the State of Michigan. It is up to the parents to determine the age at which they feel their children are mature enough to make smart, safe decisions. It is assumed that every child is different and the parents know their children best.  Parents know, for instance, that while their 10-year-old will sit quietly reading in his room for an hour, the 14-year-old might be juggling chainsaws in the garage.
There is a common misconception, that if a child left home alone under the age of 12 were to be injured while unsupervised, the parents would automatically be charged with neglect.  That is not necessarily the case.  Milford Family Law Attorney Kathryn Wayne-Spindler explains the reason behind the myth, “In divorced, co-parenting situations, the parent paying child support is no longer responsible to pay for childcare once the kids turn 12.”  She explained that many people read that to believe that the state mandates children under 12 are to be supervised.  That age was chosen as the age at which most kids are capable of staying home alone.  That does not mean that younger children are not allowed to stay home by themselves.  Wayne-Spindler said that there are also ways of extending that childcare benefit if a child needs extra time.
There are only three states left in the US that still have a minimum age to leave a child home alone.  What’s interesting is that Illinois’ age is 14, while Maryland’s is eight. The minimum age is ten in Oregon.  Obviously, this age span indicates differing opinions of “mature enough.”
If the experts in Illinois and Maryland are that far apart, it’s easy to see why it would be difficult for divorced parents to come to an agreement on the proper age to leave kids home alone.  “When deciding whether to leave a child home alone, you will want to consider your child’s physical, mental, developmental, and emotional well-being; his or her willingness to stay home alone; and laws and policies in your state regarding this issue,” according to the national website www.childwelfare.gov.
With so many factors, it’s a good thing that Michigan has the mandated childcare support minimum age.  That way, when divorced parents who share custody are negotiating all of the other “mature enough” factors, the financial consideration is off the table.  No one can be accused of suggesting that the kids stay home unsupervised simply to save money.
The National Incidence and Prevalence of Child Abuse study (NIS-4) conducted from 2005-2009 does not include an age minimum.  The study defines inadequate supervision as, “Child left unsupervised or inadequately supervised for extended periods of time or allowed to remain away from home overnight without the parent/substitute knowing (or attempting to determine) the child’s whereabouts.”
All of that said, parents can be charged with neglect if they take unreasonable risks, regardless of the child’s age.  Leaving loaded weapons accessible to kids is one example that is unfortunately too common in the news.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway published a guide in September 2013 titled, “Leaving Your Child Home Alone” provides some good advice and guidelines. Although it’s tough to know when is the right age for your child to stay home alone, it’s refreshing to know that the decision is up to the common sense and good judgment of the people who know the individual circumstances – the parents – and not the legislation.
As long as you are prepared and reasonable, hopefully you never get the call, “Mom, it’s an emergency!  I need you to come home right away…the Xbox won’t accept my password.”

Sources:
Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Leaving Your Child Home Alone,” childwelfare.gov, September 2013.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “Child Neglect: A Guide for Intervention,” J.M. Gaudin, Jr., 1993.