Parenting dilemmas: When can I leave my child home alone?
Staying home on their own is a rite of passage for kids growing up, but how do you know if they are ready?
Maybe you just want to nick down to the shops for some milk and it’ll be quicker without the kids.
Or perhaps your neighbour has invited you in for a cuppa, and the kids are watching a movie.
It could be you need to duck into work to fix something.
Not having to bundle the kids into the car every time you leave the house can be tempting – liberating – but parents need to weigh up when they can start trusting their kids to stay home alone.
At what age can kids stay home alone?
There’s not one blanket rule.
“It is important that age isn’t the only consideration,” Kid Safe Victoria general manager Jason Chambers says.
“Children will grow, develop and mature at different rates, which means they will all be ready to take on new tasks and responsibilities at different ages.”
There’s no law in Australia decreeing how old a child must be before they can stay home alone, but each state and territory has laws detailing parents’ and carers’ obligations to provide supervision and care to minors.
How do I know if my child is ready to stay alone?
Parents know their children best, so they need to consider the individual maturity of their child.
“Ask, does your child usually make sensible decisions?” Jason says.
“Would your child be able to cope in an emergency such as a fire and do they know who to call for help in different situations?”
Importantly, consider how your child feels about being at home alone.
“Some kids are quite anxious about being home alone, so if kids feel that way I wouldn’t suggest parents do it until they’re 100 per cent ready,” says Quirky Kid Clinic child psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien.
To help gauge whether kids are ready for more independence, Dr O’Brien suggests giving them small amounts of responsibility in the community.
“They could do things like ordering coffee at a café for the mum, or going into the supermarket to pick up something, so they’re starting to build their confidence in a supported way but without a parent by their side,” she says.
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How to prep your child for staying home alone
Dr O’Brien suggests starting with small actions such as taking the dog out for a walk, or stepping out to return something to a neighbour.
“Start with small errands where you can be back quite quickly if you need to be – you might even use walkie talkies to start with so you’re always within 200m of the house,” she says.
If children are feeling uneasy about being home alone, Dr O’Brien recommends talking with them to explore their concerns are and role-playing strategies to manage them.
“For example, if a courier comes to the door, or the phone rings – whatever it is they’re concerned about, giving them instructions on what they would do,” she says.
Jason suggests gradually increasing the amount of time kids are home alone to build their confidence. Ensure kids have a phone with a list of numbers to call if needed and that they know when to use them.
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Beware hazards in the home
“We often think of our homes as safe and secure places, however, they are the most common location where children are injured,” Jason says.
He recommends identifying the potential injury hazards and enacting measures to help reduce the risks.
“Common hazards include bodies of water such as pools and spas, burn and scald hazards such as hot water and electrical appliances, fall hazards from backyard play equipment or wheeled devices and TV or furniture tip over hazards,” he says.
Kidsafe’s Parents’ Guide to Kidsafe Homes provides information on common injury hazards, including a handy home safety checklist.
Jason recommends establishing some safety boundaries for kids too.
“Think about what isn’t safe for your child to do without adult supervision – this may include using appliances like the microwave, stove or kettle, accessing areas of the house like the garage or shed, or leaving the house to go for a bike ride or walk to the local park,” he says.
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Yes, your baby is growing up
Allowing children time unsupervised can be a little daunting, but Jason says being left at home alone is part of developing independence.
“As children get older, it is important they are provided with opportunities to take on new responsibilities in a safe way. This will assist them to grow and develop many important life skills, including their decision making and problem-solving skills,” he says.
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Written by Claire Burke.