What age is too young to leave children home alone?

Home alone: how young is too young?
Home alone: how young is too young? Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to leaving your child home alone, how young is too young? According to figures reported by BBC Breakfast, during 2014-15, more than 500 people were arrested in England and Wales for leaving their children unattended. While the arrests primarily involved children aged 10 or younger, the ages ranged from six weeks to 15 years.

In one case, a Birmingham mother of six children ranging from three to 14 years, received a suspended prison sentence after leaving her kids for a six-week trip to Australia

Although the law doesn't explicitly specify the age at which children can be left alone, laws in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all say that "children must not be neglected or abandoned in a manner likely to cause [them] unnecessary suffering or injury to health."

In Australia, when it comes to the law, the situation is similar. As the Raising Children Network outlines, there is no one law that indicates at what age you can or can't leave your child at home on their own. The most specific direction comes from Queensland where the criminal code states: " A person who, having the lawful care or charge of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time, commits a misdemeanour." The maximum penalty is three years prison, and whether or not the time is "unreasonable" depends on individual circumstances.

Country-wide the law does make clear however, that parents are legally obliged to ensure their children are properly cared for. In addition, police or child protection agencies are authorised to remove children from situations where their safety is in question and/or where no guardian is present.

As such, when it comes to decisions about leaving children home alone parents need to use their own judgement, taking into consideration both the circumstances as well as their child's maturity and ability to deal with a crisis. And common sense applies.

Speaking to The Sun, counsellor and parenting expert Janey Downshire, agrees that it's hard to stipulate a specific age limit. "The danger is, if you say, 'it's ok to leave your child alone at 12 years old,' you may get one parent who comes along and says, "Well I'm going away on business for 48 hours so that's fine I can just leave my 12-year-old child for two days and two nights. And actually that's not ok..."

With the Easter school holidays approaching, it's an issue more parents will be facing over the coming weeks. So what kinds of things do parents need to consider, in order to make the right decision for their family?

In their School Holiday Parent Kit, NSW Family and Community Services (Formerly DoCS) advises parents that if their children are left alone without a carer they must be "old enough to take action in an emergency, know what to do and where to get help."

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The kit also suggests that parents need to consider the following:

  • Is the environment safe with all dangerous items out of reach? Are the smoke alarms working?
  • What are the family ground rules? For example, when there's no adult supervision are children allowed to use the toaster, run a bath or turn on the heater? Can they use the swimming pool, or invite friends over?
  • Decisions should take into consideration the length of time a parent will be away, how the child feels about being left alone and most importantly, how capable they are.
  • Do children know where their parent is going and when they'll be back?
  • Do they know how to contact them? Are all contact numbers, including an emergency contact if they can't get through to their parent, available?
  • Do children know what to do in case of fire? Can they get out of the house quickly?
  • Do they know how and when to call 000?
  • Can they find the first aid kit and, more importantly, do they know how to use it?
  • If a child is going to be left in charge of younger siblings or children, are they capable enough for this additional responsibility? Children with disabilities for example, may require care they're not able to provide. Do they know how to handle arguments, fights or how to manage misbehaviour?
  • What do they do if someone comes to the door?

Parents or guardians are advised to check in regularly with their child and remember that, under no circumstances should babies or toddlers be left home alone. When in doubt, parents should also consider using a babysitter rather than taking the risk.

What do you think? How young is too young to be left home alone?