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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

Video: leaving your child at home alone

Advice on leaving your child at home alone and what your childcare options are.

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First parent: "My daughter is nearly 17 now and it's only last year that I've started to leave her home alone, maybe overnight."

First child: "I reckon I was left at home from around the age of 11 years old."

Second parent: "My eldest was probably 13 or 14."

Third parent: "I would say possibly they had to be in secondary school."

Eileen Hayes, childcare expert: "Parents always wonder 'What is the legal age to leave a child at home alone?' There actually isn't a legal age, so it's a bit of a grey area in the law, but the reason for that is if you choose an age, it's not just about the number - it's really much more about the child's maturity."

How do I know my child is ready to be left at home alone?

Third parent: "If they're mature enough and you can trust them enough to stay there at that time, you'd know, wouldn't you?"

Second parent: "The middle one - who's 13 going on 14 - I wouldn't leave on his own, because he's not as mature as my older daughter."

Eileen Hayes: "I think a general rule of thumb is the sort of age where children transfer from primary to secondary school, so around 11 or 12. They're going to have to be more independent anyway. Very often, they have to go to school on their own. Very often, they come back at the end of the day and maybe no-one's there for an hour or so. So that's the kind of age where you would think maybe they can stay at home alone for a little while."

First woman: "It gives you independence which then, I think, gives you more respect for your parents. It definitely did with me, because I was independent from that age, if not younger, so that's probably why they let me do stuff on my own."

Ask your child if they feel ready to be left at home alone

Eileen Hayes: "You can say to your child, 'Would you feel happy if I go out for an hour?', 'What would you do if the doorbell went?' and that kind of thing. I think it's important to have that conversation and not to just assume that children will be happy with it."

Make sure your child is prepared

Eileen Hayes: "How do they answer the phone? What do they do if the doorbell rings? Have you told them not to answer the door? All of those things can really scare children if they happen and they're not prepared. Also, what do you do in an emergency, if the house catches fire? You have to go through all these things with a child."

Second parent: "If it makes them more responsible and they know they have to be in charge of things, they're probably less likely to want to get into trouble by doing something stupid and spoiling it because then you're not going to leave them again, are you?"

Eileen Hayes: "Make sure your child has a mobile number, where they can contact you or a neighbour that you've told 'I'm out for the next hour or two', that they can pop round to or have the phone number of. Just put everything in place and pin them up on the fridge. Make absolutely sure none of that is left to chance."

How old should the babysitter be?

Eileen Hayes: "Most over-16s are going to be mature and sensible enough but still make sure you check that they can cope. You should always take up references and talk to them about how they would deal with a challenging situation like a discipline thing. What do they think is naughty, and how would they deal with it? Make sure they're on the same wavelength as you with parenting.

"Parents are still responsible in the law for their children if they leave them with under-16s. You are responsible, not the person you're leaving, so that 14 year old babysitter is not legally responsible for your child - you are."

Getting an older sibling to babysit may not always be a good option

Second woman: "I have an older brother. He was 12 at the time and I was four, and that's when my mother first trusted me and my brother to be at home alone."

Eileen Hayes: "Sometimes parents think 'Oh well, I've got a couple of children and the older one can look after the younger', but you have to be careful with that because siblings can resent that and they really might not feel ready for that responsibility. You think 'this 14 year old can look after the 9 year old', but they might be thinking 'I really don't want to do this', so it's having those conversations, making sure your child is happy, and if they're really not, try and get some arrangements in place."

There is no legal age limit for leaving a child at home alone. It is an offence to leave a child alone if it puts them at risk. Always have a plan for emergency situations.

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