Among the 34.4 million families with children in the United States, a new statistic by the Bureau of Labor reveals that 60.2 percent of those families have two employed parents. Some parents may be tempted to leave their children home alone for a few hours while they run errands or go to work, but the dangers of leaving children unattended have grown to be greater than ever.
While the self-sufficiency and maturity of the child may lead a parent to believe they are old enough to stay at home alone, it isn't until children become adolescents that they can be left home comfortably. Some states have laws that specify the age range of leaving children by themselves:
- 7 & under -- should not be left alone for any period of time.
- 8 to 10 years -- should not be left alone for more than one and a half hours
- 10 to 12 years -- may be left alone for up to 3 hours
- 13 to 15 years -- may be left unsupervised except for overnight
Children who are often left in an empty house experience a wide range of negative effects. Unsupervised children often show higher levels of fear, stress, loneliness and boredom. Obesity is also common because children are inside all day instead of going outside to run or play. They eat to cope with loneliness and boredom.
Academics often suffer as parents have no way to reinforce authority by getting their children to do their homework. This can be extended to children engaging in delinquent behavior, even going as far as leaving the house without supervision. Their social skills are also less developed than their peers, as they don't participate in extracurricular activities or play dates because a parent isn't available to provide means of transportation. These children don't learn how to stay safe and get along with others when their interaction is limited.
Because of maturity children who are left home alone may not know how to properly act when faced with a dangerous situation such as a burglary or house fire. Yazoo City, Mississippi, had a house fire in which the five children of Clara and Eugenia Bell were burned to death while left home unattended. A neighbor tried to save them, but a security bar blocked the front door. In Atlanta, Georgia, three children were left home alone and they died after an early morning house fire. Faced with situations such as these, children may not know how to act and may not call the police for help or go to a neighbor's house.
While parents might make the argument that leaving children at home is often safer than trying to keep an eye on them in public and protect them from strangers, the truth is mixed. Abductions from strangers are rare, with a 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program stating that three-fourths of kidnappings are committed by family members or acquaintances. These individuals may lure the child out of the house because they know each other, with the child never to be seen again.
Until children reach the age of 13-15, parents should never leave their child unsupervised or home alone. There are a few alternatives, such as providing a babysitter, getting a friend or relative to watch the children, or sending a child to day care, which will benefit the child the most and provide them with key social skills as they continue to grow and develop.