The law in Australia
There’s no actual law that states at what age children can or can’t be left alone. But the law is clear about the responsibility of parents to look after their children, and parents are expected to make ‘reasonable’ decisions about their children’s safety.
While different societies and cultures have different customs, in Australia there’s a legal obligation for parents to make sure their children are properly looked after. They’re expected to provide their children with food, clothing, a place to live, safety and supervision.
Parents can be charged with an offence if children are left in a dangerous situation and aren’t fed, clothed or provided with accommodation.
The police or Children, Youth and Family Services can remove children from situations where their safety is in serious danger and where there’s no guardian present.
Leaving older children in charge
When a child or person under the age of 18 years (for example, an older sibling or teenage friend) cares for children, the question of negligence or liability could arise. As a parent, you might be held responsible for the carer as well as your own children if something goes wrong. For these reasons, it’s better that carers should be adults, as a person who is still legally a child wouldn’t be judged against the standards of responsibility expected of adults.
If you leave your children in the care of an older brother or sister or other young person, you must be sure they’re reliable and mature. Ask yourself, ‘Could this child cope with an emergency, such as a fire, an accident or a break-in?’
If your child is left alone without a ‘carer’, she must be old enough to take action in an emergency. She must know what to do and where to get help. Leaving babies or toddlers alone isn’t advisable under any circumstances.
Questions to ask yourself
If you’re thinking of leaving your children at home alone, here are some questions you can ask yourself.
How safe is our home?
Accidents can happen so quickly – most parents know how easily a child can fall into a pool, pull saucepans off the stove, swallow objects or play with matches. Parents always have to be on the alert, especially with young children.
There’s an even greater need to check that dangerous things are out of reach if you’re not going to be around your child. See our article on home safety for more information.
Are our ground rules clear?
Every family has its own ground rules. It’s important to be clear about what your child can and can’t do – and these rules might be different when you’re not there, or when someone else is minding your children. For example, making a hot drink, turning on the heater, using the internet or running the bath might seem like simple tasks, but you might prefer it that your child doesn’t do them when he’s on his own.
Don’t assume your child know the rules – go over them and ask her to tell you what they are before you leave her home alone.
How long will I be away?
Will it be for a few minutes, an hour, a morning or a full day? How long you’re going to be away will make a difference to what you decide to do – you’ll need to think about the age of your children and how they feel about being left. Most importantly, you’ll have to consider how capable they are.
Who’ll be in charge?
It isn’t fair to expect an older child to take on the full weight of responsibility that’s needed to care for younger siblings. This child’s lack of experience might make it difficult for him to safely and calmly care for the other children.
If you have no choice, it’s important that the child left in charge is capable and responsible, and that the other children feel safe. This child should be able to handle any disagreements or fights and know what to do if the other children ‘play up’, disobey the ground rules, or are ill.
A child with a disability will often require extra care, which might be too much for another child to handle.
Am I sure my child knows the important information?
Before leaving your child alone, it can be a good idea to write some instructions on paper and keep them near the phone. Make sure your home phone number and address, emergency number, and information about how to contact you are all by the phone too.
You might also like to talk about the following points with your child:
- where you’re going and when you’ll be back
- how to get in contact with you
- how to use the telephone
- your home telephone number and address (explain that the police or fire department will need to know where to go if she has to call 000)
- what to do in case of fire
- where to find the telephone 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 if someone knocks on the door
- what to do if the phone rings (whether she should answer it)
- the family rules
- how many friends are allowed to come over, if any
- if she can play outside
- if she can use the swimming pool
- if she can go to the shop or visit a neighbour
- if there are rules she needs to know about the family pets.
Some families use a special family password to make sure their child is OK. For example, if you’ve agreed that your child won’t answer the phone when you’re out but you want to be able to call him, you can pre-arrange a code. You might let the phone ring three times, hang up, then call again. When this happens, your child knows that it’s you calling and it’s OK to answer.
When the time is right
There comes a time when most teenagers start pleading with their parents to let them stay home alone without someone to look after them. This is a normal part of adolescence, when young people are trying to feel more grown-up and are developing independence.
Once again, the age and maturity of your children will make a difference. For example, you might feel confident with a 13-year-old who’s very responsible, but quite worried about a 15-year-old who takes a lot of risks.
Letting go of the reins gradually might mean giving your children chances to practise being by themselves and to make mistakes in a safe environment.
Leaving children in cars
Leaving your child in a car unsupervised at any time is extremely dangerous, and i
s illegal in every Australian state and territory.
In summer, the temperature inside a car is much hotter than it is outside. Your child can suffer heat exhaustion and become seriously ill extremely quickly.
Children also get bored and will explore the car’s knobs and buttons, which can be dangerous. They might become distressed, or injure themselves trying to struggle free from their seatbelts.
You can read more about keeping your children safe in the car.
- Check the safety of your home before leaving your child alone.
- Test your child on the ground rules and what to do in case of any trouble.
- Phone regularly to check on your child.
- If putting someone else in charge of your child, think carefully about who’s responsible enough. Make sure the child or person looking after your child can handle any emergency and knows where to get help.
- Check that each child feels safe.
- Return home when you said you would.