Leaving children at home alone
A common question asked by many parents is: "At what age can my children be left at home by themselves?”.
What does the law say
The law provides no clear direction as to what age a child can be left at home alone and so as a parent you need to use your own judgement based on your own family circumstances and the age and maturity of your children.
Although in many cultures it's usual for children to care for brothers and sisters, in Australia the law says that it's the parents responsibility - and legal obligation - to ensure their children are safe and properly looked after.
Leaving older siblings in charge
When a child or young person under the age of 18 such as an older brother, sister or teenage friend cares for children, the question of negligence or liability could arise.
If something goes wrong then a parent may be held responsible not only for their children but also for the carer aged under 18. For these reasons, it's better if carers are adults. A person who's still legally a child would not be judged against the standards of responsibility expected of adults.
When you have no choice
If you have no choice, it's important that the child left in charge:
- is reliable and mature, capable and responsible and makes the other children feel safe
- could cope with an emergency by knowing what action to take and where to go for help
- can handle any disagreements or fights that may arise and know what to do if the other children ‘play up’ or disobey the ground rules
- knows what to do if a child falls ill.
The oldest child is not necessarily the most capable to care for others.
Setting clear rules
It's important to be clear about what children can and cannot do during your absence. These rules may differ for those minding your children from the rules that apply when you're at home and in charge.
For example, making a hot drink, turning on the heater, running the bath or using the toaster may seem like simple tasks when you're there but may not be allowed when you’re away.
How long will you be away?
Will it be for a few minutes, an hour, a morning or a full day? How long you are going to be away will make a difference to what you decide to do. You need to think about the age of your children, how they feel about being left alone and most importantly, how capable they are.
Babies and toddlers have a different sense of time from adults. An hour is not long for an adult but to your toddler it's endless and could cause distress.
Babies or toddlers should not be left at home alone under any circumstances no matter how short a time.
Teenagers, on the other hand, might ask you to let them stay home alone. This is a normal part of adolescence when young people are trying to feel more independent.
Once again, the age and maturity of your child will make a difference. For example, you may feel very confident in a 13-year-old child that you know is very responsible but quite worried about a 16-year-old you're concerned may take risks.
Here is a checklist you can use to ensure your children know what they can and can’t do and how to deal with emergency situations while you're out.
Do your children know:
- where you're going and when you'll be back
- how to contact you
- how to use the telephone
- where emergency numbers are listed (they should be next to the phone)
- their own phone number and home address
- the phone numbers of trusted friends, neighbours or relatives
- where to find the first aid kit and how to use it
- how to use deadlocks
- what to do in case of fire
- what to do if someone knocks on the door
- whether or not they should answer the phone if it rings
- how to judge if another child is unwell and help is needed
- how to contact the doctor, hospital, police and fire brigade in an emergency
- if friends are allowed to be at your place while you are away
- if they can play outside
- whether they can use the swimming pool
- if they're allowed to go to the shops or visit a neighbour
- a special family password or code to use if you call and they need help.
These tips have been adapted from ‘Home Alone’, Parenting magazine 6-12 years. NSW Department of Community Services. 1999. Copyright (c) Parenting SA, Government of South Australia (1996).