For many of us the words ‘Home Alone’ conjure up the familiar image of MacAulay Culkin wreaking havoc on two bungling burglars in the annual Christmas airing of that American comedy film. But for those who man the phone lines at Childline and other similar organisations the reality of children being left home alone is no laughing matter.
The NSPCC last year reported that throughout the UK approx. 7500 children were referred to the local authorities due to concerns about being left alone and that 849 referrals were made to the police. Childline receives calls from children as young as 7 who have been left at home alone. We will have all seen at some time the sensationalised newspaper headlines of a parent who went on holiday, in some instances for 3 weeks, leaving their child or children with no food, who was arrested on their return to the UK, and in some instances wasn’t prosecuted with any offence. Only last week it was reported that an 11 year old boy was left cowering under a table as an axe-wielding burglar wearing a head torch ransacked his parents’ Gosport house while he was alone at home.
So is it ever okay to leave a child home alone?
With many single parent families in the UK and the cost of childcare/babysitting an additional expense it is no surprise that parents look for guidance on how old their child needs to be before they can be left on their own at home. This is often a question we face from our own clients.
The short answer is that there is no specific legal age to leave children alone, simply that you shouldn’t leave a child alone if they would be ‘at risk’. It is therefore left to you as their parents to judge when a child is mature enough to be left alone and whether or not they would be ‘at risk’ if you were to do so. Clearly the ‘risk’ of leaving a child alone while you pop to the shops is different from going abroad for 3 weeks but the period of time away from the house is not the only factor to consider when assessing what risk you would place your child in. A parent or carer can be prosecuted for neglect, they can be fined or sent to prison if they are judged to have placed a child at risk of harm by leaving them at home alone. Parents really are left with a tricky decision and it is not surprising therefore that they look to us in the hope that we will give them a definite answer.
Parents really are left with a tricky decision
When a parent asks me that question I refer them to the NSPCC guidelines. These state that:
- Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone
- Children under the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency and should not be left at home for a long period of time
- Children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight
- A child should never be left at home alone if they do not feel comfortable with this, regardless of their age
- If a child has additional needs, these should be considered when leaving them at home alone or with an older sibling
- When leaving a younger child with an older sibling think about what may happen if they were to have a falling out – would they both be safe?
The NSPCC website – Home Alone guidance also gives some helpful guidance on questions to ask yourself about your children, after all everyone’s child is different, children of the same age may be years apart in their maturity levels and you know your child better than anybody else. The guidelines will help you come to a decision on whether or not you would be placing your child at risk if you left them home alone. They suggest that you ask yourself:
- Does your child seem to be responsible and mature for their age and always do what you tell him or her?
- Would they be able to fix themselves something to eat and drink and would you be happy with them using the cooker or microwave?
- Can you imagine how they’d cope in an emergency like a power cut or a flooded bathroom?
- Would they know what to do if the phone rang or someone came to the door?
- Would they know how to contact you or another family member or friend if they needed to?
- Do they have these contact numbers to hand?
- How would they feel about being left alone – pleased to be given the responsibility or scared by the thought of it?
Ultimately my advice to any parent who has considered all of the above and the guidelines on the NSPCC website would be that if you or your child are even the slightest bit unsure about leaving them at home on their own its always best to be on the safe side and arrange some other kind of care for them such as a babysitter or child-minder.