- Research presented at the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children should be at least 12 before they should be left alone for more than 4 hours.
- To prepare a child to be home alone or be a caregiver to another child while home alone, parents should gauge an older child’s level of interest in caring for a younger child.
- Testing out an arrangement with short increments is a good way to see if an older child is ready to be a caregiver.
What age should children be when they require a babysitter — and what age is it okay for them to be the babysitter?
A recent survey examined what constitutes neglect when leaving a child home alone, and has people thinking about when a child is capable of caring for another one in the absence of an adult.
“There’s no set age when kids are ready to babysit. It really depends on the age of the child and the availability of adult backup,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a psychologist from New Jersey and author of “Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem.“
Parents need to consider the dynamic between family members when considering if an older child should be allowed to care for a sibling or another family member, said Sarah Berger, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Maryland. For example, she wouldn’t advise that a 12-year-old and 9-year-old be home alone if they don’t get along.
“However, that same 12-year-old might have a great relationship with the neighbor’s kids and it would be appropriate for him or her to watch the neighbor’s kids,” Dr. Berger said.
“Most children could probably be left home for varying lengths of time between ages 10 to 12,” she said. “It depends on how long and the maturity level of the child. For some children it may be older.”
Children who are afraid to be left alone, impulsive, or aren’t aware of their surroundings should not be left home alone, Berger added.
Fran Walfish, PsyD, psychotherapist from California, said she tends to believe that child should be 15 in order to be left alone for at least 4 hours. Again, numbers are subjective.
“I can tell you that there are plenty of 15- and 16-year-olds whom I would be very uncomfortable leaving home alone for 4 hours. On the other hand, there are many 13- and 14-year-olds whom I would be extremely comfortable leaving home alone for a span of 4 hours,” Dr. Walfish said. “Parents need to evaluate their child individually. Independence, autonomy, and freedom is earned by consistent demonstration of responsible behavior.”
Getting good grades, listening to parents’ directions, having a healthy social life, being respectful of elders, having a reasonably amicable relationship with siblings, and doing household chores are what she defines as responsible behavior.
“Younger children do not automatically get the same privileges their older sibling may have earned by demonstrating responsible behavior. Each child must earn his or her way,” Walfish said.
Research presented at the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that children should be at least 12 before they should be left alone for more than 4 hours. That’s according to a survey of 485 social workers with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) who say they are more likely to classify a situation as neglect if a child is injured while not supervised.
According to the social workers:
- Nearly every social worker said leaving a child 6 years old or under home alone for 4 hours was child neglect. More than 80 percent deemed it neglect if the child was younger than 8 years old, and about 50 percent said leaving a child 10 or under home for 4 hours was neglect.
- Social workers were more likely to consider it a case of child neglect in scenarios where it was illegal to leave a child at home or when the child was injured.
- More than half of them said it should be illegal for children under 12 to be alone for 4 or more hours. About 80 percent said it should be illegal for children under 10.
To prepare a child to be home alone or be a caregiver to another child while home alone, parents should gauge an older child’s level of interest in caring for a younger child. If the level of interest is low, it is best to hold off, Berger said.
Parents with interested older children may want to explore babysitting courses, which can be useful for children who stay home alone and care for themselves.
“Being a parent helper, meaning your child watches another child while a parent is nearby, is excellent practice for solo babysitting,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore said. A next step could be watching a child whose parent is out but with the babysitter’s parent available to call or come over, if needed.
Testing out an arrangement with short increments is a good way to see if an older child is ready to be a caregiver.
“Shorter stints of babysitting are easier than longer ones, and watching one child is easier than watching multiple kids,” she added.
Parents should run through different scenarios — a possible break-in or a stranger at the door, for example — to assess how the child may respond.
Families should be clear on the rules that govern things like if the child can play outside or have screen time, Berger added.
Other ways to determine if a child is ready include gauging a child’s response to an emergency in the past, assessing if the child is aware of his or her surroundings, knowing if the child is impulsive, and whether or not the child knows their phone number and address.
Don’t just focus on how to handle true emergencies. Help them plan for more mundane ones, such as when the younger child misbehaves, Kennedy-Moore said.
“Your child also needs some guidelines about what is or isn’t an emergency, when to call a parent, and when to just try to handle things,” she added. “Kids gain confidence from handling responsibilities and learning to manage on their own.”