I was born in the 1970s, and raised in a lower-to-middle-class suburb. Mum and Dad ran their own business and they both worked long hours. This meant that when I was a kid, I let myself into the house every afternoon after school, and I was free to play anywhere in the neighbourhood until my parents returned home from work. I spent the afternoons riding my bike down to the park or to the shops with my best mate Andy.
I did all of this from about the age of seven or eight. But a lot has changed since the latchkey generation of the 1970’s and 80’s. Today Australian parents are often unsure or confused about when it is OK to leave children home alone.
What does the law say?
The Queensland Criminal Code says it is unlawful to leave a child under 12 years old for an “unreasonable time” without proper supervision and care. However, Queensland is the only state that explicitly gives a minimum age and the concept of an “unreasonable time” allows for a fair degree of flexibility and interpretation.
In other states, there’s no specific age, but law firm Slater and Gordon have analysed the comparative laws and determined that even without a minimum age given, each state still requires parents to provide their children with adequate safety and supervision.
So what is reasonable time? What is “proper supervision?” And is there a right age to leave the kids at home?
Let’s be really clear about this. It’s a BIG deal. Parents risk fines and even (ironically) gaol time for leaving children unattended – not to mention that if something goes wrong, our kids’ wellbeing and even lives may be at stake, so this is something we need to get right.
I can’t give you an age, but I can suggest some guidelines. The laws tell us that a “reasonable” amount of time depends on the context. As a start, courts will consider factors such as the age of the child, the length of time unattended, the reason she was left unattended, and the capacity of the child herself.
But these factors are only a start. As parents we have a lot more to consider.
How to know if your child is ready
As your first step, check how your child feels about being home on her own. If your child is frightened talk to her about it. If she is scared of something specific, like what to do if someone knocks on the door or the phone rings, perhaps you can help her work through that fear and give clear instructions to keep her safe. Alternatively, we might recognise that staying home alone could be a scary experience. Wait until she is older and more confident.
If your child feels ready, the next thing to consider is the context. How long will you be gone? Where will you be? Is it day or night? It might be reasonable to leave a 10 year old for a few minutes while you pop next door to borrow something from your neighbour, but maybe not to leave the same child for two hours while you go to dinner in the evening. Think about whether there be any siblings around. Even if your child feels ready to be on her own, she may not be ready to also look out for a younger child – or perhaps you have two kids who are old enough to be left alone, except when they’re with each other!
There are a few other things to consider:
Check that your child can physically manage on their own – that they are tall enough and strong enough to open doors, turn locks, and complete simple tasks, like organize whatever food they might need. Consider different scenarios. If something happens, would your child know what to do? If someone trips and falls, or cuts himself while slicing a sandwich, would they know how to help or who to call? Is there anyone nearby who could help in an emergency? Are they capable of ringing 000?
Next, think about the specific rules that apply in your own home. Do you have a pool? If so, what are the rules about swimming with no adults present? Can your child watch television or use the iPad? Is your child permitted to open the front door to strangers, or to anyone? Are friends allowed over (important if you have teenagers!)?
Make sure that your child has demonstrated the ability to make safe decisions – to stay home alone, they need to be grown up enough to think through what to do if something unexpected happens or what could happen if they don’t follow the rules (drowning if you have a pool!).
How you will monitor your child’s behaviour. Are they following the rules? Are they home when they say they will be?
Finally, once you decide it is the right time for you and your child, figure out how you can support them. Get home when you say you will. Arrange to phone them or for a friend to check on them. When your child feels confident and safe, you will too.