Are teenagers children? The Law State by State

As parents, we are always trying to do the best for our children. But at what stage do we start to treat them as adults? Good common sense and a knowledge of some child laws will help you on the way to making your decision.

Are teenagers children? We need to ask ourselves why we are asking this question. Are you basing your decision on something you are going to allow them to do? Here is how we approached this question in our home.

  1. How mature is your teen?
  2. How much responsibility should they have?
  3. Have they older siblings?
  4. What age does the law think they are?

By understanding your teen and your teen’s needs, you will then be able to judge if your teen is ready for the responsibility. Children should never feel like they are in a rush to grow up. They are small for such a short amount of time, we tried to allow them to be children for as long as possible.

How mature is your teen?

All teens are different. Even within a household, siblings are different. We have a boy and a girl and they are like chalk and cheese.

Our girl is older and has always been very focused and reliable. Our boy is currently going through a ‘blank look’ phase.

Every question gets the “You just asked him to explain the theory of relativity” look. So we have to ask at what level do we think our teens are currently at?

Could you safely leave the house with them in charge? Would you leave another human safely in their care?

If given a number of tasks to do would they fully complete them? If the answer to more than a couple of the above is yes, then you more than likely have a responsible teen, or at least enough trust in them to know they would do the right thing.

If they are an older sibling then chances are you want them to possibly babysit or watch other children after school. For this to go smoothly, you are right to question whether they are ready.

So how do we know? As I said we have two teens and it became a topic of conversation when they were going to be home alone for about an hour each day after school before I returned from work. They were excited at the prospect of being on their own, but were they ready?

How much responsibility should they have?

We didn’t want to just throw them in at the deep end but I also knew that it was only for an hour each day and I also worked less than a 10-minute drive away.

So before we fully committed we did a few dry runs. There were also going to be a few ground rules. They were to leave school, onto the bus, and go directly home. No deviating, unless there was a planned activity. If there was then both went to it.

As soon as they were in the door, they sent a text to say as much. They locked the door and under no circumstances opened it for anyone.

We also had a prearranged password. This is a random word picked between you and your children. They are not allowed to tell anyone the password.

If there is a problem with me coming to collect them, or if I need someone to bring them somewhere, I tell the trusted adult the password.

When this adult arrives at the door, they ask the adult for the password. If the adult doesn’t know the password then they don’t open the door or go anywhere with them. It is a very effective way of keeping your children safe. 

Once home, they were allowed a snack, but no hob cooking. They could watch TV while snacking but then had to start homework. We found that by the time they had got to this stage I was on the way home. There were a few teething problems, but this was to be expected. Younger siblings sometimes resent the older child having the responsibility of being in charge.

The power of being in charge can sometimes go to the older child’s head and they become a little too authoritarian!

There is, of course, a happy medium and unless you are being met at the door with a barrage of complaints it’s possibly best to let them sort it out themselves.

After, of course, you explain to them that it is this way with no arguments or it’s going to afterschool care.
The arguments usually disappear if they know their freedom and responsibility could be curbed.

Maybe the reason you’re asking is not about leaving them on their own. Are you wondering about allowing them to go somewhere for the first time?

To the mall, to a party, or on a first date? The most important point we made was to speak openly about the situation.

Who else is going to be there? How are they getting to and from the venue? If they are meeting someone new, what do we know about them? Generally, we have to go with our gut.

In relation to this, you may also be interested to read my post How late should I let my teenager stay out?

We have to let them blossom to a certain extent. Being a teen is all about pushing the envelope, but it always boils down to knowing that they are safe. No matter how hard they push, if you think it is a bad idea, or certainly if they are not going to be safe then we have to be the adult and say no.

Yes, they will be angry, and you’ll get the “You don’t trust me…, what do you think I am going to be doing…?”

Teen won’t listen – a Mother’s top tips, may also be an interesting read.

But at the end of the day, they are our most precious commodity and we have to do right by them, even if it’s at the cost of them not talking to us for a couple of days. There will be other parties, other trips to the mall. 

Have they older siblings?

If your teen is not your first teen, then you may ask why am I panicking. But as I say, every teen is different.

If you have been here before, you may be a little more relaxed the second or third time around. Or you may be thinking, I never had any of these concerns the first time around.

Our daughter paved the way for her younger brother. She did all the firsts, so it was a little easier for him.
I think I was more laid back when it was his turn to start asking to go out. It’s hard to let go as a parent. There’s a fine line between child and teen.

They need to know that they have your support but they also need space to grow up and spread their wings.

So where do you stand with the law?

There are some broad guidelines about whether or not your teen is still a child. The most obvious one is whether they are allowed to be on their own for any length of time. In the USA there are only 3 states that specifically dictate an age that is appropriate to leave a child. They are Illinois, Oregon, and Maryland.

All other states have suggested ages, based on parents’ judgment.
No child under 7 should be on their own.

From 8-12 years old, they can be on their own for a limited amount of time but not at night.

But once your child becomes a teen they are seen to be mature enough to be alone, but not overnight.

Every child is different and parents must use their discretion as to whether their child can cope with being alone and also whether they are mature enough if something were to go wrong.

It’s always good to have a backup plan. Neighbors on hand. Emergency numbers are saved to phones.

If you are a parent of a teen then you have come a long way on the learning curve.
If you are questioning yourself about how mature your child is well then possibly they are not ready for more responsibility.

I have also written Can a 13 year old take care of a dog? This post touches on responsibility for your teen.

You are the one that knows your child better than anyone. Don’t allow others to pressurize you into allowing your child to do something that you are not 100% comfortable with.

Our daughter is now in college and I still worry about her. Where she’s going, who she’s meeting. It doesn’t get any easier when they leave for school.

Be it leaving them alone, going to a party, to a trip to the mall. You’ve got them this far, trust in yourself as a parent and you know you will make the correct decision.

Tara Cunningham

Tara Cunningham is a Mum and Graphic Designer. My children's education has always been very important to me. I feel that if you are willing to put in the time they will appreciate the effort. I hope that you find our thoughts and ideas useful and interesting.

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