Home Alone: How Old is Old Enough to Leave Kids Unsupervised?

FORT SMITH (KFSM) -- When the final bell rings and school’s out for summer, parents will have to figure out where their children will spend the next three months. Many kids will be unsupervised while mom and dad go to work. That’s a tough decision for families, but how do you know how old is old enough?

4-year-old Kenlee loves swinging at Creekmore Park while baby brother Charles watches nearby. They need a lot of supervision now, but their mom Katharine knows it won’t always be that way.

"Yeah, I think I would let my kids stay home probably when she was 12 or 13 by herself just because that was my age. As long as she knows the roles and stuff and the responsibilities," said Katharine Lawson, Greenwood.

Their great-grandmother Jeri agrees but says a lot has changed since she raised her children some 40 years ago.

"We taught them to be very independent, to be very cautious. And that’s something more so now than it was then. You know, now you have to be even more extreme," said Jeri Fox, Katharine's grandmother.

Fort Smith Police Corporal Anthony Rice explains there is no Arkansas state law that mandates a minimum age to leave kids home alone.

"It’s not really age-related. It’s maturity-related," said Rice.

He says it’s a judgment call on the part of both parents and police.

"We do get several phone calls in the summertime but it’s usually calls of, hey can you go check on these kids and make sure they’re okay," said Rice.

That’s why it’s important to know the risks, both inside and outside your home, including any registered sex offenders in your neighborhood.

"If you’re leaving your kids home alone at 8-9 years old, the predators know. Where before, it was a society took care of each other. And they don’t now. We’ve lost that," said Fox.

Across town, the mission of the Hamilton House Child and Family Safety Center is to eliminate child abuse. Executive Director Jackie Hamilton says they have seen cases where children are taken into care by Arkansas Department of Human Services after being left home alone.

"Many times it’s a very long court process for parents to be able to show that they’re remorseful and that they are now responsible," explains Jackie Hamilton, Hamilton House Executive Director. "The parents will be required to go to parenting classes."

There are things you can do to make sure your kids understand the responsibility of being in charge of their own care, including having a safety plan.

"I would talk to children about staying alone, being alone, being responsible. What they can and cannot do when you’re not there," said Hamilton.

Hamilton also suggests doing trial periods of 30 minutes or an hour before leaving children home alone for an entire day.

"Have a list of phone numbers that children can call and are easy to get to. Make sure they have a phone that works and make sure that somebody’s close by that you trust that those kids can go to in case of an emergency situation," said Rice.

It’s also important to educate your kids about the dangers of social media if they have a device with internet access.

"What you don’t want is a kid to stay home all day and be messing around on social media and then meet somebody they shouldn’t be talking to online so it’s a fine line you cross when you’re just leaving a child at home," said Rice.

"I think technology is important if it’s used properly," said Hamilton.

Katharine plans to have both a cell phone and a landline in her home and take technology even a step further.

"I probably would end up getting the home cameras or something if they were home just so if something does happen, I can track to make sure everything’s okay," said Lawson.

Every family is different so ultimately, parents should make the decision that’s best for their child, on a case-by-case basis.

Police say you can always call in a welfare check if you’re worried about the safety of kids home alone. Or if you suspect something worse, you can call the Arkansas or Oklahoma child abuse hotline anonymously.

Important Links:
Home Alone Laws by State
Arkansas Department of Human Services
Oklahoma Department of Human Services