Deciding if your child is ready to be left home alone can be tricky. 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. There are no hard and fast ‘home alone’ rules because every child is different. Strange as it may seem, in most countries there’s no set age for leaving children unattended. 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.
There might not be a specified legal age, but 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 6-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 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 while your kids play indoors, or letting them play in the garden while you cook dinner, is important for their development. Leaving them on their own while you pop to the shops is a different thing altogether. Six or 7-year-olds might seem like mini adults to you, but they’re not. They are children lacking intellectual development necessary to cope if something goes wrong.
There have been times when I’ve forgotten to pick up some milk or bread. It’s 7.30pm, my 3-year-old is fast asleep and my 6 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; what if something happened to me while I was “popping out” for a few minutes, I could fall off my bike. Realistically, the likelihood of there being an accident or emergency is miniscule, 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 key 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? Can they safely fix themselves something to eat and drink, do you allow them to use 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.
This article originally appeared on page 47 of the beijingkids November 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: majorvols (Flickr)