Leaving children home alone: is your child ready?
There’s no home alone law in Australia that says how old children must be before they can be at home by themselves. But parent and carers are legally responsible for looking after their children and keeping them safe.
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 – your child’s maturity is also important. For example, 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 questions you can ask yourself to decide about leaving your child home alone. These questions can also help you identify things to work on to get your child ready for being home alone when the time is right:
- Does my child usually make sensible decisions?
- Can my child stay alone for a while without being worried or frightened?
- Would my child be able to cope in an emergency, like a fire?
- How safe is our home and neighbourhood?
- Does my child know important information, like 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 far away will I be?
If you’re not sure your child is ready, trust your judgment and wait until they’re a bit older.
And if your child is unsure or feels frightened about staying home alone, be patient and reassure them that they’ll feel ready as they get older. There’s no need to rush into it.
If you decide your child isn’t ready for being home alone, you can look into babysitters, outside school hours care and other types of child care.
Benefits of being at home alone
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 like problem-solving.
In a busy home, being left at home alone is also a chance for your child to have some quiet, private time.
It’s a good idea to take a gradual approach to leaving your child at home alone. You could start by leaving your child for a few minutes while you go to the shop and build up to leaving your child for an hour or so. You can build up to leaving your child for a whole day.
Preparing for leaving children home alone
Even when you decide your child is mature enough to be home alone, you’re still responsible for their wellbeing and safety at all times. So it’s important to prepare your child and your home for the experience.
Draw up a list of things your child can do when they’re at home alone – for example, playing in their room, drawing or reading.
You might also want to have a list of things your child can’t do without an adult in the house, like having friends over, cooking, having a bath or swimming in the backyard pool. You might like to remind your child about your family’s rules about screen time and digital technology use too.
Other good rules are for your child to phone you when they get in from school, and for you to phone if you’re going to be late.
Clear rules about who’s in charge will help if your child is at home with 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 an argument.
Activities and back-up
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 a trusted 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 their friends.
Safety checks and plans
Before leaving your child home alone, do a check to make sure your home is as safe as possible. Inspect things like door and window locks, smoke alarms and lighting. Make sure your child knows how locks and other safety features work.
Agree on what to do if someone knocks on the door. You might agree that your child doesn’t answer the door.
Make sure your child knows who to call for help. Write down phone numbers or save them in your child’s phone if they have one, in case your child needs help while you’re out.
And before you leave, remind your child of the things they need to do to stay safe.
An emergency plan is very important.
Talk your child through what they should do if there’s an emergency. When should they call 000? When should they call the neighbour?
For example, you might agree that if there’s smoke or a fire, your child should go next door immediately and ring 000 from there. But if the dog runs away, your child should call you and wait for you at home.
Also, have a plan for what to do if your child loses their key, or comes home and finds the door open.
Download a checklist for leaving your child at home alone. It has things to think about and discuss before leaving children home alone.