How Old Should My Child Be When...

Questions you should “consider” before you allow your child to do something.

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Have you heard about the New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ “Not Even for a Minute” campaign? Simply put, it warns parents to “never leave a child unattended in a car.” (That’s right, “not even for a minute.”) As the mother of a child approaching the double digits, I was curious as to the Department’s definition of “child.” Strangely, though, the campaign is unaccompanied by any guidance—or law—regarding the age at which you can leave a child alone in the car.

This will come as no surprise to those of you who’ve noticed that experts in various child-related fields are loathe to put an age on anything, and instead like to tell you questions you should “consider” before you allow your child to do something. So I set out to discover what age experts think children should be when you start to consider the questions they tell you to consider—about leaving a kid alone in the car and two other things. See below for the expert advice… and my own two cents. (In other words, this does not constitute legal advice; use your own judgment!)

Q: How old should my child be when I start to consider leaving her unattended in the car for a short time, or letting her play in the yard while I’m in the house, looking out the window every now and then?

A: 8

Mark Delluomo of Child Find of America was very clear that “young children, 5 and under, should never be out of a caregiver’s line of sight, be it in the car or the backyard.” He also pointed out that “the American Academy of Pediatrics states that children can be left (home) without adult supervision for brief periods of time starting around 4th or 5th grade,” which translates to 9 or 10 years old.

Regarding the outdoor play situation specifically, Dr. Alanna Levine, a New York-based pediatrician, executive committee member of the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media, and mom of two, says that, “As long as you can see your child playing and it's safe from the street, kids can usually play unattended between 5 and 8, depending on their maturity. But this still requires close supervision.” Of course, looking out the window every few minutes isn’t exactly “close supervision.” But if the AAP says you can start to (briefly) leave kids alone at around 9, and Dr. Levine says you can let them play outside while you closely supervise inside at 5-8, then it stands to reason that, in a safe neighborhood, you can begin to consider letting them play outside when you’re inside (checking on them periodically) at around age 8. Factors that will affect your decision, other than the general safety of your neighborhood and your child’s maturity (always!), are whether it’s easy for people walking down the street to see children playing unattended; you know your neighbors; have an enclosed yard; and can hear your child playing. So if you live on the 20th floor of a high-rise, or if you’ve got a particularly reckless kid, 8 isn’t going to cut it—but you already knew that!

Regarding the car situation, some states do have laws regarding the age at which a child can be left unattended in a motor vehicle, and they vary greatly—from six years old in some states to 12 years old in Connecticut. The laws often specify that a child is considered unattended if there’s no one in the car 12 years old or older, that the motor shouldn’t be running, and the keys shouldn’t be in the ignition. Dr. Levine recommends locking the doors as well, and you also might want to leave kids with a cell phone on which they know how to dial 911. Obviously, don’t lock kids in a hot car during the summer, and make sure you really are just “running into” someplace for a few minutes (i.e., there’s no such thing as “running into” the mall). And don’t leave your child if she’s scared—not even for a minute!

What is the appropriate age for a cell phone? ->

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