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?
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? ->
Q: How old should my child be when I start to consider letting her have her own cell phone?
Says Dr. Levine: “I tend to recommend giving children a cell phone at the stage when they will be going places after school or on the weekends without a parent or caregiver. For example, if they are being dropped off at one activity and then being picked up by another parent to go on to the next…. For kids in my neighborhood, this usually occurs between ages 10 and 12…. For some parents who don't feel it's appropriate for their kids to have cell phones, I recommend having an extra ‘family’ phone that they can use when they are going out without their parents.”
As with every question here, you’ll have to gauge your own child’s maturity, particularly whether he or she can be trusted not to lose something valuable and understands the permanence of things sent via text or email (you know what I’m talking about!). If she can access the Internet, make sure you have parental controls.
Q: How old should my child be when I start to consider letting him use a public bathroom by himself?
When your kids are 5 and under, just take them into the opposite sex bathroom if necessary. And if they feel comfortable at 6, you can usually get away with it, especially if it’s a boy in the women’s room, which has closed-off stalls. By 7, it’s a little weird. But instead of foregoing the movies or other outings with a kid of the opposite sex, “accompany them to the door and wait for them to come out,” Dr. Levine suggests. “If your child has to go unattended, be sure to go over the ‘rules’ before the child goes in and remind him or her about strangers and not talking to anyone and always being able to scream for help if they need. If you are right outside, the odds are you will hear.”
What if you are the one who’s gotta go? Marc Atkins, Ph.D., President of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology and Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggests asking an usher or security guard to watch your child, or check with the establishment beforehand about its policy.
Things to Consider While You’re Considering
Regardless of the situation or age of your child, Dr. Atkins recommends doing a practice run (e.g., leave your child in the car when you’re really not going anywhere) and get your child involved in the rule-making process. Ask your child what he or she thinks you can do to minimize the risks—and be sure your child understands what the risks are.
For help in developing safety rules and procedures, see Child Find’s prevention page, which includes downloadable tips.
More by NJ Family's Real Moms of NJ Blogger, Renee Sagiv Riebling: