Leaving children home alone: is your child ready?
There’s no home alone law in Australia that says how old your child must be before he can be at home by himself.
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. 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 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 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?
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.
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, it’s also a chance for your child to have some quiet, private time.
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’m 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
Checklist 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. Here’s a checklist you can use.
Prepare your child
This is about building up gradually. So you might start by leaving your child for a few minutes while you go to the shop and build up to leaving him for an hour or so. If you’re thinking about leaving your child for a whole day, it’s a good idea to take it in stages.
Make some rules
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 your child can’t do without an adult in the house, like having friends over, having a bath or cooking. You might like to remind your child about your family’s screen use rules too.
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.
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.
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
Arrange some 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 her friends.
Go through safety plans
Before leaving your child home alone, do a safety check of your house. 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, in case your child needs help while you’re out.
Remind your child of the safety rules often, and do what you can to keep your home as safe as possible. Even if you think your child is mature enough to be home alone, you’re still responsible for his wellbeing and safety at all times.
Have an emergency plan
An emergency plan is very important.
Talk your child through what she should do if there’s an emergency. When should she call 000? When should she 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, he should call you and leave it until you get home.
Also, have a plan for what to do if your child loses her 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.