In child custody cases, parents often accuse each other of leaving the child inadequately supervised. The allegations can be that the child was left home alone or left with someone who cannot properly supervise the child (such as relatives who are too old or too young). Left Unsupervised: A Look at the Most Vulnerable Children, a 2003 study published by the non-profit research organization Child Trends addressed the large number of children are left without care and supervision by their parents.
Surprisingly, most States do not have regulations or laws about when a child is considered old enough to care for himself/herself or to care for other children. Some states have guidelines or recommendations that are usually distributed through child protective services at the county level. Similarly, reports of child neglect can be made to the [Department of Family and Children’s Services], though the response there may be very inconsistent and erratic.
As a practical matter, the difficulty in this area centers on the fact that every child is different. Establishing a rule that a child must be X years old to stay home alone or supervise other children would not solve this problem, because some children are mature at an early age, some are immature, and many fall somewhere in the middle. Wise parents base their decision about leaving his or her minor child unsupervised upon careful consideration of the child’s maturity and emotional stability.
Family dynamics also must play a part in a parent’s decisions about child care. Should a sibling be left in charge of younger siblings? If so, how old should that sibling be? How long should or could he/she be in charge? In some families, it would never work to leave one child in charge because of family dynamics, sibling rivalries, or other special challenges faced by one of more of the children. The maturity and capabilities of the elected babysitter should be the controlling factors.
To help parents ensure that their children are safe, the University of Michigan Health System has compiled an excellent resource Babysitter Safety – What Parents and Sitters Need to Know. This website includes the following types of information: how to choose a babysitter, things to tell the sitter before you leave, information sitters should have, resources for sitters, the dangers of leaving kids home alone, information about problems associated with sibling sitters, and more.