Child home alone

“I Thought My Son Isn’t Allowed to Stay Home Alone Until He is 12”

Misinformation abounds about the age kids can stay home alone -- and the laws are murky, too.

My neighbor just said these very words to me: “I thought my son isn’t allowed to stay home alone till he’s 12, even if I just have to run to the corner store for sugar. Even for five minutes, he can’t be by himself. That’s why I always take him with me, or I just don’t go. That is the law. “

But, in fact, that is not the law. What’s disheartening is that my neighbor is just one of many, many people — maybe the majority of people! — getting the wrong information.

To help parents understand the law, and to guarantee them the right to make reasonable decisions regarding their children’s independence, Let Grow is doing two big things:

What is the neglect law in your state?

1 – We compiled and published the first comprehensive look at every state’s rules about when you are allowed to let your child stay home alone or engage in other normal childhood activities, unsupervised. Click here to look your state up. You will see that we have two different sets of laws. Why?

Because there are two sets of laws governing child neglect. One is the criminal law. If you commit a crime against a child, law enforcement steps in. The other set is promulgated by child protective services. If you are suspected of abuse or neglect, the child protection folks step in.

The problem arises from the fact that the majority of states’ neglect laws are so open-ended that parents don’t have a clear idea of what is allowed and what is not. That’s how my neighbor ended up thinking that she couldn’t leave her child, age 7, alone for even a minute until age 12.

The actual criminal law in New York State says child endangerment is defined as a “lack of reasonable diligence as to a child under 18.” Great. But what is “reasonable diligence”? The law leaves it wiiiiiide open…

For 18 years.

Likewise, the child protective law in New York says neglect occurs when the parent fails to “exercise a minimum degree of care,” or leaves the child “without proper supervision or guardianship.” Once again, the problem in New York, as elsewhere, is that no one has defined “proper.” And so parents are left hamstrung: “What if I think it’s proper to run to the store, but the state thinks otherwise?”

2 – That’s why in addition to cataloging all the neglect laws, Let Grow has been educating legislators and other authorities about how they can narrow these confusing, wide-open statutes by supporting “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws.

What are those?

Instead of a current law that says something like, “Parents must provide proper care!”, “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws say that a parent who allows their kid to do something on their own is not guilty of neglect unless they put the child in immediate, obvious and probable danger.

This year, Texas and Oklahoma joined Utah in passing “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws, with Let Grow’s help. These new laws affirm the right of parents to let their kids play outside, walk places, stay home alone, etc., whether that’s because they want to “Free-Range,” or because they can’t afford constant child care. As The Enid News and Eagle in Oklahoma put it: Poverty Does Not Equal Neglect.

What about parents who let their 3-year-olds play in traffic?

What “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws do NOT do is allow parents to let their 3-year-olds run around at night, or their 6-year-olds to stay home for the weekend in charge of their twin baby brothers — because those things are NOT reasonable.

But if a mom thinks her 7-year-old is going to be fine at home while she runs to the corner grocery for a pound of sugar, she can’t be second-guessed by any authorities, as she has not put her child in immediate, obvious or probable danger.

In this way, the new law also prevents the authorities from hectoring parents simply because something COULD have gone wrong. Yes, the house COULD have caught fire while the mom wasn’t home. A burglar COULD have broken in.

But a child walking with mom to the grocery COULD get hit by a drunk driver, or caught in a gun fight, or bitten by a rabid dog. Just because bad things COULD happen doesn’t mean they are likely, and if they really aren’t likely, you can’t castigate a parent for trusting the odds — and their kid. And their own parenting.

Wish your state had a “Reasonable Childhood Independence” law?

To find out more about Let Grow’s advocacy in this arena, check out our Legislative Toolkit by clicking here. This year we are hoping that five more states will pass a Reasonable Childhood Law: Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina and Virginia. If your parenting has been impacted by the authorities in any of those states, please let us know by filling out the form at the bottom of this page.

The fear of open-ended neglect laws has made people like my neighbor convinced that the state is ready to pounce the instant she takes her eyes off her kid, even when she knows he can handle some unsupervised time.

Our job as reasonable parents is to find out the local laws. And if those laws won’t let us trust our kids when we believe they’re ready for some independence, it’s time change things.