Deciding if your child is ready to be left home alone can be a tricky decision. There are lots of things to think about. Plus, there are no hard and fast ‘home alone’ rules or laws because every child is different. Whether you or your child are comfortable with the idea will often depend on how mature and adaptable your child is – and we all know how much this can vary from child to child. Strange as it may seem, in most countries there’s no set age for leaving children home alone. The law simply says that you shouldn’t leave a child alone if they’ll be at risk and you can be prosecuted for doing so.
Whilst there is no specific legal age, The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says 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, and babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone. Even if they’re sleeping peacefully when you leave, children could well wake up and get very upset when you’re not there to look after them. However mature your child may seem, most under-eights simply don’t have the cognitive ability to predict danger or assess risk. What is ‘sensible’ to an adult, won’t be ‘sensible’ to many six-year-olds.
Leaving a child at home on their own can also make them scared and vulnerable if they’re not completely comfortable with it. Sometimes they become anxious, and are likely to start attention-seeking upon parents’ return. But children also love being given independence, and freedom is important for their development. They need to play outside on their own and be left without adult supervision for short periods. Hanging out the washing whilst your kids play indoors, or letting them play in the garden whilst you cook dinner is important for their development, but leaving them on their own whilst you pop to the shops is a different thing altogether. Six or seven-year-olds might seem like mini adults, but they’re not. They are children and lacking in intellectual development.
There have been times when I’ve forgotten to pick up some milk or bread. It’s 7.30pm, my three year old is fast asleep, and my six year old is happily reading a few books in bed. The shop is only a ten minute cycle ride there and back, but leaving them alone would never even cross my mind. We just have to make do without milk. What would happen if one of them hurt themselves, what if there was an emergency in the house like a fire, or what if something happened to me whilst I was “popping” out for a few minutes, I could fall off my bike. Realistically, the likelihood of their being an accident or emergency is remote, but it can and indeed it does happen. Just look at the devastating outcome for Madeleine McCann’s parents.
No one knows your child quite as well as you, but it’s still a good idea to consider a few things before deciding whether it really is the right thing to do.
Does your child seem to be responsible and mature for their age and always do what you tell them? Would they be able to safely fix themselves something to eat and drink, would you be happy with them using the kettle 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?
How would they feel about being left alone? You might think they would be pleased to be given the responsibility, when in fact they are scared by the thought of it.
beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent Sally Wilson moved to Beijing in 2010 from the UK with her husband and son. Her daughter was born here in 2011 and both her kids keep her happily busy. In her spare time, Sally loves to stroll through Beijing’s hutongs and parks. She is a (most of the time) keen runner and loves reading: books, magazines, news, and celeb websites – anything really. Sally is also a bit of a foodie and loves trying out new restaurants.