When Okay for Children Be Left Alone?

As a general practice, do you think a 12 year old should be left home alone? if you think it’s okay, under what circumstances and for how long?

How about if you add a 9 yr old child to that mix? Under what circumstances would you leave this mix of kids home alone?

I’m asking in general first and then I can add some detail/context. 

how long?  Time of day?  Where will the adult be?  Are kids generally responsible?

I was left alone with my sister who is two years younger at a very young age, maybe around 10.  It depends on the kids.  We were worse when we got older because we had friends over and started fires in ashtrays just for fun. Almost burnt the house down.

conandrob240 said:
As a general practice, do you think a 12 year old should be left home alone? if you think it’s okay, under what circumstances and for how long?
How about if you add a 9 yr old child to that mix? Under what circumstances would you leave this mix of kids home alone?
I’m asking in general first and then I can add some detail/context.

Well, when I was 8 to 12 years old, back in the '70s, my mom would routinely either leave me and my younger brothers at home for a few hours when she went shopping, or take us with her but leave us alone to play in the back of the family station wagon in the parking lot of the supermarket.  I know today that sounds horrible, but we survived it and rest my mom's soul.

I was given a key to our apartment, and came home for lunch alone when I was 8, and my mother went back to teaching. I came home after school and stayed alone until she got home.  No big deal.  When my sons were 10 and 7, I went to work part time in the afternoons, and they each had a key, and stayed by themselves for an hour or so until their dad got home.  Again, no big deal. It depends on how responsible the kid(s) are, and how far away the parents' jobs are,  My mom worked close to home, and I never took a job that was more than half an  hour away. .

nan said:
I was left alone with my sister who is two years younger at a very young age, maybe around 10.  It depends on the kids.  We were worse when we got older because we had friends over and started fires in ashtrays just for fun. Almost burnt the house down.

I’m not asking about what we did 50 years ago. Lots of things gs were different then and we did many unsafe things we shouldn’t have.

would love to hear today’s thinking on this. We rode in cars without seatbelts, smoked up a storm and drank while pregnant 50 years ago. 

Like I said I could provide context but wanted to see general reaction first. Tell ME how many hours, under what circumstances you’d leave a 12 yr old alone and then a 12 yr old watching a 9 yr old.

Steve said:
how long?  Time of day?  Where will the adult be?  Are kids generally responsible?

 How long would YOU leave them alone? At what time of day? Under what circumstances?

Responsible 12-year-olds get babysitting jobs outside their own homes. I wouldn't hire a 12 year old to watch my 9-year-old while I went to the city for dinner and a show, but I would if I were going to a local movie and dinner, or going to dinner at a friend's house in the neighborhood.  And, yes, I did leave my 12-year-old home with my younger one, 3.5 years younger, to go food shopping or other local errands, as well as to go out at night locally in town.

Thank you. Exactly the info/detail/opinion I was looking for. 

The short answer is ... it depends.

yes, I understand but what do YOU do?

conandrob240 said:
yes, I understand but what do YOU do?

 What 'you do' depends on what you have done with teaching your children, who your children are, etc. Nonetheless, 12 yrs. old is not enough for big time responsibilities. Ok for an hour or two, with close adult contacts available if needed, not to be trusted for more, and never to be trusted without close adult back-up. I am a teacher who teaches these children. I teach them to do the right things, but in the end, they are children, and I can only hope for the best. I can not teach them wisdom,or experience, or how to react in/to an emergency, no matter what I do, because they are children. Not to say that even adults always know well what to do in an emergency, but they certainly know better, and have the responsibility to take care of the children, which the children always depend on in the end. I wouldn't leave town with my 12 year old in charge of my nine year old. Times haven't changed so much. Children are still children, and they make bad decisions all the time because they are children. Don't give them more responsibility than they, or you, can handle, in the pursuit of the freedom that you certainly deserve after all these years, but maybe, the truth is, neither of you are ready for it, totally, yet. Or else why would you be asking? I like the fact that you are, and I don't know all the answers, I just like to err on the children's side. I don't trust children of any age to make good choices, not their fault, but nevertheless... Seen the movie "Risky Business'? Ha, ha! Just kidding, kind of... 

conandrob240 said:

Steve said:
how long?  Time of day?  Where will the adult be?  Are kids generally responsible?
 How long would YOU leave them alone? At what time of day? Under what circumstances?

 Not going down the abstract road.  It depends.

I’m watching a situation unfold from afar. I don’t have kids but have an opinion on what’s happening. Before I judge it (or say something) I wanted to see what others thought in case my thinking was off base. I’ll give the details after (hopefully) I hear a few more general opinions.

IIRC our kids were 12 and 9 when we first left them alone (roughly a decade ago). But when we did we were in the village for a movie or dinner, about 500 yards away from our home. 

I began leaving my daughter alone during the day for a short time (I would go to the supermarket), when she was probably in 4th grade. I also had a 12-13 year old babysitting her after school for 1-2 hours when my daughter was in elementary school.  My daughter began babysitting at about age 13 for children across the street from us. The parent would go out to dinner locally and be available by phone and we were also available. Also, by grade 6 my daughter had a key to the house and would let herself in after school. I would normally be home an hour or 2 later. Would I have left my 4th grade daughter alone for hours at night when I was not close by? No, probably not. We did this in stages.

I've spent my entire career working with children and I know that DYFS (DCPP) guidelines are "it depends." Depends upon the maturity of the child, how far away are the parents, is it night, day, etc. , does the child have health issues or dangerous behavior, but I know you want specific examples.

thank you both for that.

here’s the detail. Their mother will start a fight if you offer any advice or raise a concern so that’s why I want to tread lightly with my opinion being “tested” first.

Here’s the summary:

12 yr old is very smart but pretty immature. She is on medication for major depression. She spends all of her time (if allowed) online on questionably appropriate websites. (Meaning she doesn’t pay much attention to what’s going on around her).

Her brother is a bit of a terror. He would do all kinds of bad things if left unsupervised (meaning things like play with knives, light matches, walk to town alone). He often has extensive tantrums where he physically and verbally lashed out. He is a handful even for an adult.

The kids don’t get along very well- they are actually pretty mean to each other. 

The older child has been being left alone lately while the parent goes to work. The work is sometimes early in the am sometimes before they wake up returning about two hours after they are awake. Or at night where the parent goes in around 4:30 and gets home around 8:30-9pm. Sometimes, both children are left alone like this together, sometimes just older one alone. This is not an emergency type thing. This is being done regularly 2-3 times a week. work is about 15 minutes away.

Other times it’s for an hour or two while parent locally goes to the store or something. (This isn’t the one I’m concerned about. This seems reasonable to me)

My son walks home from school on a regular basis and has since 6th grade when my ex went back to work.  He has his own keys and a cell phone.  At the beginning he'd call me at work when he got out of school and I'd talk to him all during his walk home - about 20 minutes.  We did this everyday for about two months.  Then he would call when he got home now he sends a text message when he's home.  He is very diligent about this.  In the two years he's been walking home he's missed maybe three days.  Oddly his texts always arrive within a two or three minute window, so I know he goes directly home.  I also have the iPhone tracking so I know where he is.

He gets home, grabs a snack, does his homework and plays on his computer.  He is not to answer the door or have friends over.  It does suck at his age but the situation is what it is and he knows.  I've noticed a definite change in his maturity level - he is much more responsible.

His mom works about ten minutes away and I am a half hour to 45 mins away. 

When he wants to stay with me he often comes over and spends the entire day alone while I'm at work.  We touch base a few times during the day and when I can, I go home for lunch - about 10 min drive.  He can prepare simple lunches.  He is not allowed to use the stove or oven.  He will be 13 next month.  I trust him, even moreso now that he's proven to be responsible.  He just doesn't do "dumb" kid things.  He started staying home by himself for a couple hours at at time when he was 10.


You clarified the situation in the last post pretty well.

I think I would be comfortable with my daughter home alone when she was 12, but not for the lengths of time you've described.  We've had babysitters as young as 13, but that's usually when we're out locally for something like dinner and a movie.

I would NOT leave her alone with access to the internet, unless I had some pretty strict parental controls on there.  

You've introduced a whole bunch of variables into the discussion that a lot of people don't regularly deal with. I think a combination of depression, unfettered internet access and large blocks of time spent unsupervised are a risky proposition.  You've also described someone who is attention-deprived, and the internet is awash in people who are happy to provide that attention.  I'm not saying there's a predator ready to pounce, but this kind of situation certainly puts her more in harm's way of such a situation.

I don't know what kind of statistics or data can back up these concerns, to be honest.  I don't know how you can make a logical case that the circumstances are not the best for these kids.  But my parental instincts say this is a bad combination. 

Conandrob: You are describing a pretty risky situation. IMO, here are the significant risk factors: kids being left alone while they are sleeping, brother's history of playing with knives, matches. Questions: Is the daughter seemingly "stable?" How depressed has she been of late? Any history of self-harm? Has brother been agressive towards sister? How recently? What is she doing on the internet? These are all questions I would have. I doubt you or the parent(s) have answere to all if any of these questions but they are all important ones. If these children were in my school, I'd likely be calling child protective services who might or might not do anything about it. By the way, how old is the brother? And, I'm not suggesting you do this, but you do know that you can make a report with Child Protective Servies anonymously, right?

brother is 9. I wouldn’t say he “plays” with knives, matches but he has gotten into things like that when left unattended in the past. He also gets mad sometimes and literally just leaves (tries to leave). He’s not violent like as in he hurts other people. His tantrums are just him screaming and crying occasionally breaking a toy but he needs adult supervision and reason to “come out if it”. Their hatred of each other causes what I’d call typical brother sister verbal and the occasional physical altercation (slapping, kicking, pulling hair). More often the older sister hits the little one than vice versa.

12 yr old is stable now. Some cutting incidents last year but has been pretty good since medicated around 10 months ago. I do no think she is in any immediate danger of hurting herself. But I do think she is inattentive yo the world around her and highly susceptible to online people. It’s her only source of friendship and personally think it’s dangerous. Not to mention that when left alone, all she does is chat with kids and look at stuff online. Mostly drawing or comic book related. Nothing else.

how truly anonymous can a report to child protective services be? My real fear is they will do absolutely nothing and that as a result of the call the children will be pulled away and not allowed to be around me or their grandparents (who would be accused of making the call)

I’ll add that the house they live in is always a mess/disaster so there us also that concern from a safety perspective. The company the parent they live with keeps us highly questionable so I am also worried about who might stop by. And there us typically no food left for them or readily available. There is a dog so that at least gives me some comfort on the external guest point.

legally, what you are describing needs to be reported to child services if you are a mandated reporter.  In NJ, everyone is mandated reporter.

Yes the family will suspect you/others of making the report....and that can make the situation worse.

I had to call on a neighbor (not in Maplewood) about 15 years ago.  He was 14, looked 10 because he was no emaciated because mom was so high she wasn't hungry and didn't want to spend money on food for him....and probably didn't fill out the free school lunch forms..  He had untreated asthma and sounded like he was barking.  At first, I though mom just didn't know she could take him to the ER and get charity care.  But even when that was made available to her, she chose to go get a manicure instead.  I  heard this from his next door neighbor who refused to make the call.  The kid said he was afraid he wouldn't survive the night because of the asthma....he has been going to school like that..emaciated, obvious breathing difficulty....no one did anything.  I call child services and at 1st they refused to do anything since my info was 2nd hand.  I had to lie to them and say I heard 1 statement as I was headed to his neighbors house and he was talking to her.  If they didn't come quickly, I would have called 911 because of the untreated asthma and hoped the police could place him in protective custody...it was that bad and couldn't be allowed to go through the night again.  Child services showed up and insisted mom take him to the ER.....but left him there...for it to happen again.   They moved not long after that.  The neighbor ran into him when he was about 17...and homeless after mom kicked him out.

"Highly suseptible to online people" does not pose an immediate risk nor does a past history of self harm, a  history of "getting into things like that in the past." Look, I think there is no perfect answer here. You can call and make it anonymous. Simply tell them you are not providing your name. The parents may very well assume its you and as you said, you might then be cut off. I don't think you are being "negligent" if you don't call. Again, the answer to the question of how old kids should be before they are left alone at home, is "it depends." This situation is a mess, however, it may not rise to the level of DCPP (formerly DYFS) doing anything about it. One more option: You could call them and talk it through without providing any identifying information. ("Hi, I have a concern and I'm not sure if I should report this or not...") But, they might then say "you need to or should report it."

A lot of moving pieces and nothing at all clear about this situation other than it sucks.

(Oh, and as an aside, I do not suggest lying in order to get DCPP to go out to the home.)

Anecdotally: I'm not sure you're pointing to anything that DCPP would classify as abuse or neglect.

If you want to report the family, the best outcomes may be if you can provide specific examples of neglect or risk that can be addressed. Kid online probably doesn't have much remedy. If the kids are malnourished and left without food then that could be neglect, and a case might be opened. If the daughter was still cutting it would seem more high-risk, and be a bigger concern. But it seems the parents are parenting if they addressed this need with medical attention and medication.

Part of this seems systemic: The cost of childcare is prohibitive. Sub-optimal situations while working exist all over, more so for working class families. It sounds like you might be describing a single parent family, and it doesn't seem the mom is neglecting the kids to go out and party, but for constraints like work and food shopping.

More of what is needed in this society are viable childcare options for families who do shift-work, rather than a threat of taking kids away if one can't find or afford such options. 

If you are in NJ, maybe you can call/email to ask the NJ 211 referral/help line to ask if there are any good childcare or other support options you could suggest to your neighbor. I would be curious if there is anything available -- I'm doubtful, but it would be helpful to know.


the parents are clearly negligent..not because of the past self harm and potential online threat, 

but because of the mess that is a safety issue, the 9 year  old not having an appropriate caregiver (12 year old clearly cannot handle it), no food....and the 12 year old seems to need more supervision.

i actually know 2 people that were approved to be foster/adoptive parents.....but were known to be inappropriate. one was a former boyfriend who I can prove engaged in criminal abuse against me, but  got away with it because of who he is.  The other was known to act inappropriately with other people's children (giving excessive attention, taking pics against the parents wishes) and be verbally abusive to adults...

i have no faith in child services...its more of a necessary evil......but some times you have  to make a choice as to which is the lesser of the evils...the current home situation or calling child services...

really, don't suggest lying...even when the facts of the maltreatment are truthful?  I should have just let the child die because my other neighbors refused to call?  actually MULTIPLE neighbors told me...and they all refused to call.  he was going to the neighbors begging for food (I worked from about 8am-8pm at that time and just wasn't around much).  There is absolutely NO REASON child services should refuse a report because the info is not 1st hand.  I had to lie because of their incompetence.  I did know who the child was.  I did hear him barking from the asthma.  I did see how emaciated he was....I had spoken with him, but he never made any comments about the neglect to me.....but child services claimed that was not enough for them to investigate....they refused until I said I over heard him say he was afraid he was going to die over night.

look, this wasn’t really a call to child services situation. I was just responding to the suggestion and asking about anonymity.

The question was would YOU (do you) leave a child alone and under what circumstances. And now that you know these circumstances, what do you think? 

All leading up to whether to confront the parent and deal with a tirade of abuse or let it be. 

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