Many parents wonder about leaving children home alone: when is it OK? You can start by thinking about your family circumstances and the age and maturity of your child.
No legal age for leaving children home alone
There’s no one law in Australia that says at what age you can or can’t leave your child home alone.
In Queensland if you leave a child under 12 years of age for an ‘unreasonable time’ without supervision you have committed a misdemeanour. However, the legislation also says that whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances.
Elsewhere in Australia, the law says you’re legally obliged to make sure that your child is properly looked after. You’re expected to provide food, clothing, a place to live, safety and supervision. You can be charged with an offence if your child is left in a dangerous situation, not 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. Read about the laws in each state and territory.
This means that you need to use your own judgment about leaving children home alone.
This involves thinking about whether your child could cope if you weren’t able to get back, or if something happened. For example, leaving a baby or toddler asleep while you pop out to collect older children from school poses a significant risk.
If you think it’s OK and you’re confident your older child is ready, your older child can spend some time alone without parental supervision.
If an older child who is under 18 years – for example, a teenage neighbour – is looking after your child, you might be held responsible for the carer, as well as your own children, if something goes wrong.
Deciding if your child is ready to be left at home alone
You’re the best judge of when your child is ready to be left at home alone. It’s not just about your child’s age – her maturity is also important. You might feel confident leaving a 12-year-old who’s very responsible, but quite worried about a 15-year-old who takes a lot of risks.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to decide about leaving your child home alone:
- Does my child usually make sensible decisions?
- Can my child stay alone for a while without being frightened?
- Would my child be able to cope in an emergency, such as a fire or a break-in?
- Does my child know how to use the telephone?
- How safe is our home and neighbourhood?
- Does my child know important information such as phone numbers?
- Can my child follow the house rules, whether I’m there or not?
- Does my child feel confident about being left alone?
- How long will I be away?
- How often would my child be at home alone?
If you’re not sure your child is ready, trust your judgment and wait until he’s a bit older.
If your child is unsure or feels frightened about staying home alone, be patient and reassure her that she’ll feel ready as she gets older. There’s no need to rush into it if she’s not ready.
If you decide your child isn’t ready for being home alone, you can look into babysitters
, out of school hours care and other types of child care
Benefits of self-caring
Being left at home alone is part of your child’s journey towards independence.
It gives you the chance to shift responsibility to your child. You could even get your child to do some things around the house – for example, hanging out the washing or setting the table for dinner while you’re out. This can help your child feel competent and develop useful skills such as problem-solving.
In a busy home, it’s also a chance for your child to have some quiet, private time.
If your child has special needs, you might want to talk with his specialist about your child’s ability to solve problems. If you need to, you can get some professional help to make a plan for some independence that uses your child’s strengths.
We have a routine on Mondays when I work later. I do the weekly shop on my way home from collecting my youngest from child care. This saves me time and is only possible because my 13-year-old manages for a while on her own, and sets the table too. It means I am then settled in for the evening and she gets to feel grown up and take some responsibility.
– Mother of two children, including a 13-year-old daughter
Preparing for leaving children home alone
If you’ve decided that your child is ready to be left at home alone, it’s a good idea to do some preparation.
The first thing is building up gradually. For example, you might start by leaving your child for a few minutes while you pop to the shop and build up to leaving him for an hour or so after school. Leaving your child for a whole day requires a lot more independence than leaving him for a hour or two, so it’s a good idea to take it gradually and think about whether your child is ready.
Draw up a list of things your child can do when she’s at home alone – for example, playing in her room, drawing or reading. You might also want to have a list of things she can’t do without an adult in the house, such as having friends over, having a bath, using the internet or cooking.
Other good rules are for your child to phone you when he gets in from school, and for you to phone if you’re going to be late.
It might also be helpful to talk about whether it’s OK for her to answer the door and who she’s allowed to let into the house.
Clear rules about who’s in charge will help if your child is babysitting younger siblings. You could also come up with an action plan of what your older child can do if the younger ones won’t do as they’re asked or they have a big argument.
I tell my 16-year-old that I need to know where he is, so he rings me if he’s changing venues. It’s my way of keeping tabs on him while I’m at work. He’s usually asleep when I go off to work, so I leave a note on the kitchen table about what needs doing.
– Mother of 16-year-old son
Your child needs to know how everything works – for example, the phone and the locks on the doors.
Children can feel bored or lonely at home on their own. It can help to leave your child with some tasks or a routine to follow – for example, do homework, set the table for dinner and then have free time.
If you’re leaving your child for the whole day, you could arrange for an adult to pop in during the day, or you could phone to touch base at various points. Your child could also spend part of the day visiting friends.
Before leaving your child home alone, do a safety check of your house. Inspect things like door and window locks, smoke alarms and lighting.
Agree on what to do if the phone rings or someone knocks on the door. You might agree that your child doesn’t answer the phone or the door. You can arrange a code for when you call, so that your child knows that it’s you calling and it’s OK to answer. For example, you might let the phone ring three times, hang up, then call again.
Make sure your child knows who to call for help. Write down phone numbers in case your child needs help while you’re out.
School-age children are more aware of safety than younger children. Remind your child of the safety rules often, and do what you can to keep your home as safe as possible
An emergency plan is very important.
Talk your child through what he should do if there’s an emergency. When should he call 000? When should he call the neighbour?
For example, you might agree that if there’s smoke or a fire, she should go next door immediately and ring 000 from there. But if the dog runs away, she should call you and leave it until you get home.
Also, have a plan for what to do if your child loses his key, or comes home and finds the door open.