The film has become a firm family favourite. An eight-year-old troublemaker – Macauley Culkin – has to protect his house from burglars when he’s accidentally left at home during the Christmas vacation. In reality, it’s a question to which parents continue to seek the answer – at what age is it ok to leave your kids home alone?
The law doesn’t give a definitive age in the UK. In the US, only three states have a minimum age requirement, ranging from eight to 14 years old – but there are often other rules on how long children of different ages may be left. No wonder, then, that parents are often unsure on what is acceptable.
Occasionally an extreme case hits the headlines. The mum who leaves her kids at home with no food or money for two weeks while she goes on holiday with a new boyfriend, for example. But for the rest of us, what are the guidelines we should follow when it comes to leaving kids at home on their own?
Every child is different
In the UK, government guidelines say parents should use their judgement about their child’s level of maturity before deciding to leave them alone. We’ve known ten-year-olds who could cook their own lunch and wouldn’t dream of answering the door to a stranger. We’ve also known 14-year-olds who would eat crisps all day and think it was fun to play with the box of matches they found in the drawer. There really is no hard and fast rule.
You know your child best, so start by considering how they’d react in different situations. Will they remember to follow simple instructions, such as what to do if the telephone rings? Are they calm in a crisis, should anything happen – a power cut, say, or a flooded bathroom? Do you trust them to behave sensibly or do they panic easily?
In many countries, the law says it’s an offence to leave a child alone if it puts them at risk. Parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect – if they leave a child unsupervised in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health.
The UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) gives the following advice:
- Children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time
- Children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight
- Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone
- A child should never be left at home alone if they’re not comfortable with it, regardless of their age
Leaving siblings together
There are additional considerations when leaving a younger child at home with an elder sibling.
Brothers and sisters can argue and fall out – what would happen in this case? You need to be sure they would be both be safe, and the older child wouldn’t let their anger get in the way of looking after the younger one.
Your older child might be perfectly capable of looking after him or herself for a while, but the responsibility of caring for a younger brother or sister is immense. You need to be sure they’re up to it.
How to do it
Preparation will help both you and your child feel confident and comfortable about them being at home on their own.
- Set clear boundaries. Make sure your child knows what to do if anyone knocks at the door or if the telephone rings. What are the rules on food and drink – are they allowed to boil a kettle to make a hot drink? Maybe they’re allowed to use the microwave but mustn’t use the oven or the gas hob. Perhaps you’d prefer to leave sandwiches or something ready-prepared in the refrigerator for when they get hungry.
- Discuss with them what they’ll do while you’re out. Are they allowed to go to a friend’s house, or have someone round in turn? Make sure they know not to broadcast on social media that they’re alone.
- Ensure your child knows what to do in the event of an emergency. Have a list of numbers pinned up by the telephone – not just yours, but other friends and relatives in case you can’t be reached immediately. Include the number for the police, fire and ambulance services; you might think it’s obvious, but it’s easy for the mind to go blank in a panic.
- Talk to a neighbour or friend who lives nearby and ask if they’re happy to be someone your child can run to if it’s necessary.
- Don’t leave your child locked in the house without a key or the means to escape should they need to.
- Start small. Pretend you’re leaving your child alone for a while but stay in the house – perhaps hole up in your bedroom with a good book and some snacks. Don’t let them hear you moving around. You’re trying to get them used to how the house will feel if you’re not there.
- Next, leave them for a short period of time – just 15 minutes or so while you pop to the shop to buy milk or bread. Gradually increase the time they’re alone until they’re comfortable being left for a few hours.
- Being on their own when it’s dark is a different experience to during the day. You’ll need to repeat this process during the evening until they’re confident about being left home alone at night, too.
- Whenever you leave your child, make sure they know when you’ll be back. Check in with them while you’re out – text or message to make sure they’re ok and to update on them on when you expect to be home.
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