Home alone: When should children be allowed to go solo?
From staying at home by themselves to travelling solo on public transport – at what age is it all right to let a child do something alone? Heather Large finds out. . .
There may come a day when you end up in a situation where your child is unexpectedly at home and you have no choice but to consider leaving them alone.
It could be that their school has suddenly been shut due to bad weather or a child care arrangement has fallen through at the last minute. If your child is five or 16 then it’s obviously an easy decision. But if they are somewhere in the middle, it can be much trickier to know what to do for the best.
And what might have been fine when you yourself were a child may not be appropriate now. When it comes to staying home alone, the law doesn’t actually say an age when you can leave a child on their own.
But it is an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk. And it’s this that can leave parents in a quandary. A lot of it will come down to how mature your child is and whether you feel they can handle being alone.
If you know they are going to get upset or worry about you not being there then it’s probably not the right time.
Also, if you don’t trust them not to take advantage of the situation the moment your back is turned then again you may want to find other arrangements!
However, it may be that you feel they could cope well by themselves for a few hours or an afternoon. The most important thing is that they must have the maturity to respond to an emergency.
Consider if your child generally makes good judgements or if they are prone to taking risks. Knowing that your son or daughter understands what to do in different situations such as a fire, a stranger coming to the door or if they have an accident will also help you to make a decision.
Also, if you have a next-door neighbour you trust this can also make it easier because there will be an adult presence nearby should your child need assistance.
NSPCC West Midlands Campaign Manager Ally Sultana advises: “Children mature at their own rate so it’s really important parents think carefully about what is right for their child.
“Children shouldn’t be left on their own if they are not happy with being left, or if they don’t know what to do in an emergency.
“We advise that babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone. Children under the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency and should not be left at home alone for a long period of time. Our guidance also suggests that children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight. A child should never be left at home alone if they do not feel comfortable with it, regardless of their age.
“Also, if a child has additional needs, these should be considered when leaving them at home alone or with an older sibling. When leaving a younger child with an older sibling think about what may happen if they were to have a falling out – would they both be safe?”
But if, after considering everything, you feel that your child is ready then remember that staying home alone can be a positive experience for children, helping them gain a sense of self-assurance and independence.
When it comes to your child travelling alone on public transport, there will likely be similar considerations but there are also other risks to think about. Experts say that if a child is not asking to make a trip like this by themselves then they are probably not ready. If they are already catching a bus to school then you will feel more confident with them travelling into town at the weekend to meet their friends by bus or train.
A lot will depend on the journey such as how many stops there are and how frequent the return buses are – ask if they understand where they are getting off the bus or train and which bus stop or train station they need to be at to catch one home.
If it requires more than one bus or train then a compromise could be to drive them part of the way and let them do the rest alone.
It might also make you feel better to do a trial run with them in advance, letting them take the lead and only correcting them if they go wrong.
When you feel they are ready to go by themselves then teach them what to do in an emergency, where to go for help and who to call. Also ensure they know how to react if they are approached by someone they don’t already know. Give them your phone numbers on a piece of paper, in case they lose their phone, and money for a taxi should they need one.
Ultimately, with both situations, it will come down to what you feel is best for your child – after all you know them better than anyone else.