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How to navigate the challenge of leaving children at home alone

by Liz Marchant

The number of working parents is on the rise which often means that many parents are considering leaving their children at home alone at some point.

Between 2007 and 2017, the number of working couples with dependents under the age of 15 had increased by 21 per cent. When it comes to single parent families, 68 per cent were employed single fathers and 57 per cent were employed single mothers. Three quarters of working single mothers are between 35 to 54 years old.

These numbers tell a clear story: fewer parents are likely to be able to be at home for their children all the time.

If a partner, relatives or friends are unable to help, how can parents navigate the difficult decision of leaving their child, or children, at home alone?

No one can answer this conundrum for your family better than you. You know how capable and mature your children are, and only you can decide whether they’re up to being left home alone and, if so, for how long.

Some states have specific laws regarding when children can be left home alone. In Queensland, children under the age of 12 must not be left home alone for an ‘unreasonable’ amount of time or the parents could face up to three years’ imprisonment.In the rest of the country, it is the parent’s responsibility to ensure the child is safe and properly looked after. However, there are no clear guidelines about when children can be left at home alone. This is left up to the parent’s individual judgement with regards to the age and maturity of the child or children.

Therefore, when the circumstances for your child to stay home alone arise, here are some factors to consider:

Build up to it

If you have some warning that the situation is likely to arise soon, it’s worthwhile easing the kids into the idea of staying home alone little by little. You could consider experimenting by leaving them alone for short periods on the weekend when you are relatively close by or, if your children are home alone after school, tell them you’ll be half an hour later than usual and see how everyone feels.

How long will your child or children feel comfortable without you?

The time you’re away will feel different depending on the age of your child. The younger they are, the longer a small amount of time feels. Assess how long you feel your child or children will feel comfortable being alone as a starting point. Talk to them about it and come to a mutually-agreeable timeframe and make sure you stick to it to build trust.

What are the rules when the adult isn’t home?

It makes sense to set different rules for your children when they have adult supervision versus when they’re alone for safety reasons. For example, set rules around preparing food, using the stove or oven, and making hot drinks. You should also set rules regarding what to do if someone comes to the door. For example, you might specify that your children are not to answer the door, and that the only people allowed in should have a key.

It can also be useful to give them small tasks to complete to keep them occupied, such as making beds, folding washing or feeding pets.

Stay in touch

If you don’t have a landline, invest in an affordable mobile phone for your child to let you keep in touch and provide updates on what’s going on at home or at work. It’s also useful to write down phone numbers for other responsible and contactable adults such as neighbours, friends, family and your work reception number.

Stick to the plan

As much as parents need to be able to trust what they’re children are doing, the kids also need to know their parent will be home at the agreed time. If not, let them know and keep in touch. If you’re going to be late, tell your children before they start to worry. One bad experience can make it difficult for your child to confidently stay home alone in future.

Who’s in charge?

Consider the maturity of your children and discuss this responsibility with everyone. If you have a good relationship with a neighbour who may be at home while you’re away, let them know the kids are without adult supervision so they can help if something unexpected comes up, or if you’re running late.

As the kids get older, everyone will feel more comfortable with the situation. On a developmental note, leaving children at home, particularly high school children, is a step towards building their independence.

Youth counsellors have been known to advise parents that their role is to become redundant by the time their children are 18, creating self-sufficient, independent adults who are confident to step out into the world without their parents.

As always when it comes to parenting, you should go with your gut and take it slowly. However, it’s important to be aware that the law can vary from state to state, so make sure you’ve done your research and prepared as far in advance as possible.

 

Footnote:

(1) Criminal Code 1899 – section 364A