Leaving a Child Alone

When Is It All Right To Leave Your Child Alone?

To report child abuse and neglect in Clermont County, call 732-STOP.

One of the most difficult decisions a parent must make is determining when it is safe to leave a child at home alone. Most child care experts and parent educators are reluctant to offer advice for fear of encouraging parents to leave young children unattended. The very real fact, however, is that work is a financial necessity for many parents. Some parents – because of isolation from relatives or lack of appropriate or affordable child care – feel they have no alternative to leaving their children alone while they are at work. They see their choice as feeding their children or paying someone to care for them after school.

According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, some seven million children in the United States return to empty houses after school. Nationwide, that is about one child in four. According to the National PTA, 65% of the mothers of school-age children in the United States work outside the home. Single-parent households now account for 25% of families, and the number is rising. If more women enter the work force, the likelihood is that the number of children left alone to care for themselves on a daily basis will increase.

The real solution to this issue is to ensure that low-cost, readily accessible child care is available to anyone who needs it. Child welfare professionals and advocates across the United States have focused lobbying efforts toward this achievement. Unfortunately, this long-term solution does not offer answers to parents now faced with deciding if it is all right to leave their child alone.

Children have no magic age when staying alone suddenly turns safe. Your child’s readiness for self-care depends on many factors, including the environmental circumstances of the situation; your child’s level of maturity, dependability, and ability to make reasonable decisions: and your child’s relationship to you.

Environmental Circumstances

Things you should think about:

Maturity of the Child

There are many different levels and indicators of maturity. Your child’s actions or inaction can tell you a lot about her capacities and abilities. Children are not miniature adults. Maturity is a long, gradual process. A responsible person is able to carry out a duty and is answerable for his own behavior. Characteristics and behaviors you can look at when trying to determine the level of your child’s maturity include:


A child’s dependability can be measured in little ways. Does she arrive places on schedule? Do chores get finished? Does he stay where planned without wandering around the neighborhood? Does she inform you before leaving the home? Does he follow directions?

Ability to Make Reasonable Decisions

When children are left alone, adults trust them to make reasonable decisions. “Should I open the door to this stranger?” “Would it be okay if my friends come in?” “Can I heat up some oil for popcorn?” Children usually cannot call to ask permission for every decision they must make while they are alone. Adults need to evaluate how well a child makes decisions before the child is left alone.

Your Child’s Relationship to You

For self-care to be successful, you and your child must have a relationship that encourages honest and open communication. Staying alone can be a scary thing. Your child must feel free to discuss his fears and feelings with you, as well as any problems she might experience. If after answering these questions, you cannot decide if your child is ready for self-care, he probably is not ready. Self-care requires your full confidence in his abilities. It is unfair and unrealistic for you to expect your child to function well in a situation neither of you is ready for.


Adapted from Iowa Council for Children and Families, Vol. 7, No.5, April/May 1983

information provided by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services