Tuesday, 20 April 2010

When are children old enough to be left home alone?

My daughters are growing up, I can no longer deny it.  Tall Daughter is 10½ and The Teenager is 13½ - the half is very important! They're now at an age where they are gaining their independence and enjoying some of the responsibilities that come with it.  They can do a lot of things on their own now, and actually prefer to do some things without me, their interfering mum.  And then there are the things that I wish they'd do on their own. Oh, y'know, pick their wet towels up off the floor; tidy their bedrooms, blah blah blah.

Just recently we've had a couple of occasions when I've had to go out at short notice  and it's been difficult to find someone to look after them.  I don't have a list of willing babysitters, which I'm sure is a problem for most single parents, and I hate asking people to do favours for me but recently even then I've struggled to find people to help out.

On other occasions, it's simply been that the girls haven't wanted to come with me when I take Tessie out for a walk.  So what are you supposed to do in this situations? Do I drag two reluctant girls out with me to walk the dog, or should I leave them at home? 

I'm happy enough to leave The Teenager on her own at home, given that she makes her own way to and from school most days, travels on public transport on her own, and is a sensible and mature girl I think she's old enough to be left home alone for an hour or so.  Now that I've written that I feel a bit nervous in case you're sitting there, tut tutting at the screen, thinking I'm being an irresponsible mother.  Or to be precise, an irresponsible, feckless single mother.  Because as you know single mothers are the root of all evil.

Tall Daughter is another story of course.  She's younger, and I don't feel she's ready to be home alone - nor does she want to be either.  But is she old enough to be left in the care of her older sister?  I don't know, but I err on the side of caution and don't generally do it.  I say generally, because - here goes - I usually leave them home together in the mornings when I take Tessie for her first walk of the day which takes no longer than 10-15 minutes.

When I've looked for guidance on this it seems to be a bit vague.  The Directgov wesbite offers this advice:

The most important factor to consider is how mature the child is. For example, it may be okay to leave a mature 12 year old alone, but not a 13 year old who is not mature. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) advises that:
  • children under the age of about 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time
  • children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight
  • babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone
The Children's Legal Centre has a leaflet (available to download) about the subject, which trys to clarify some of the vagueness surrounding the law on this. They say:

"The law does not specify an age when a child can be left at home alone. However, parents commit an offence if leaving the child at home alone puts him or her at risk."

It continues:

"...most children under the age of 13 should not be left at home alone. Even a short period of time on their own can be distressing and lonely for a child, most children under 13 years of age would not be able to cope with an emergency."  

They go on to include a list of things to consider before leaving your child/ren home alone.  All useful stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, but I'm still left with a feeling that while some people might disapprove of my decision to leave my two sensible girls at home for short periods of time, many more will be doing exactly the same thing but keeping quiet about it.

It's a thorny issue, and I'd love to know your views. So, what do you do?  Or, if your children are still too young to even consider it, how old do you think is old enough?