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Is It Ever OK to Leave Your Child Home Alone?

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It’s pouring down rain and your 1-year-old baby is fast asleep safely in his crib. You hold the birthday card in your hand, knowing that if you don’t run down the street to the mailbox — a trip that will take you 10 minutes in total — the card won’t arrive in time. Do you run and post it, leaving your baby to sleep soundly? Or do you wake him up and bring him with you, knowing he’ll be grumpy for the rest of the afternoon? Or do you disappoint your own mother by sending her birthday card too late?

We’ve all been there: deciding whether or not to leave our child home alone for a matter of minutes — or perhaps longer. In the UK, the law doesn’t state an age when you can leave children on their own but “it’s an offense to leave children alone if it places them at risk.”

The UK press has been debating the case of a woman named Joan who eight years ago left her 6-year-old son home alone while she had a driving lesson. Joan explained to The Sunday Times: “We went to the school but it was closed. There was no one home to look after him. He was in no danger when I left him.” While she was out, a nurse called the house to arrange a vaccination appointment and was answered by the boy who started crying. The nurse called the police when the child said he was alone. Joan continued, “I came back from the lesson to find the police on my doorstep.”

She was told to report to her local police station where she received a caution for child neglect, not realizing that this would later affect her plans to train as a mental health nurse. “I applied to five universities to study and four did not accept me because of this caution; I am now trying to get this [caution] removed. My son is 14, at school and absolutely fine.”

I really feel for Joan in the fact that something so innocuous could end up jeopardizing her future career. While I wouldn’t have left my 6-year-old son alone for an hour while I was miles away on a driving lesson, I understand why she did. Driving tests are expensive and maybe for work/childcare reasons, she was desperate to pass. I would have insisted my child come on the lesson and brought a car booster seat with me, but perhaps this wasn’t an option for her. I’m completely against the fact that she was cautioned and made to feel like a criminal, though. I hope for her sake that this is expunged.

As a result of this case and several more involving other families, the UK government is being pressed to issue clear guidelines governing at what age and for how long children can be left home alone. Is it simply a case of judgment — of what is right for you and your child — or should there be one set of rules for everyone?

Back when I was a baby in the 1970s, my mother frequently left me in my cumbersome stroller outside the local shops while she ran errands inside. By no means was this unusual. When I was around 6 or 7 years old, I remember vividly my mom being at work and my grandmother who lived with us popping over to the corner shops and telling me not to answer the door, that she’d be back soon. On Sundays, my mom would drive my grandmother to evening church after giving me a bath. I wasn’t allowed to go because my hair was often still wet, so at the age of 6, I would stay home alone for the 10 to 15 minutes this took. Was that wrong? I remember enjoying it, myself.

I faced a similar dilemma when my own son was 6 months old. I needed to return a DVD to the store or face a fine, so I left him fast asleep in his crib as I raced up the street to the DVD store and back. The whole trip took under four minutes, as I ran as if my feet were on fire, but was I wrong to do this?

It’s a subject that divides opinion. One friend and mom of three Jane says:

“My son R is 9 and while I think he’s probably sensible enough to be left in the house alone for a short time, my fear would be, what if something happened to me while I ‘nipped’ out? And I didn’t come home when I said? Would he cope? I think he would be traumatized. So, no I would definitely not leave mine for even a short time.”

However another friend and mom of two (ages 8 and 11) Sasha says:

“I think it’s fine as long as they are comfortable with it and are old enough to understand the rules about not opening doors or playing with knives. In saying that, I wouldn’t leave mine if they were asleep though in case they woke up and panicked.”

Personally, I never leave my children (ages 8 and 4) home alone aside from that one time I mentioned above. However, my husband has. He picked me up at the train station, a five-minute drive from our house, with only our daughter in the back seat, announcing that our son was home alone watching a movie and didn’t want to come. I flipped out and demanded that he never leave him again. I got home and my son was indeed fine and bemused at my “over reaction.” I insisted to my husband that while I wasn’t worried about my son doing something wrong or even answering the door (he had been told not to), what if a fire broke out and he couldn’t open the door? Or someone — god forbid — broke in? My husband said I was being ridiculous. That nothing would happen in five to 10 minutes, but my point is that’s usually precisely when something bad happens.

Maybe I’m an over-worrier, but I would never dream of telling someone else how to parent. What works for one mature 9-year-old might not work for another. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) says:

  • children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time
  • children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight
  • babies, toddlers, and very young children should never be left alone

An NSPCC spokesman says, “It is vital we have a common sense approach … because [parents] are best placed to know what is right for their child.”

I agree and think it’s totally pointless to have a “one rule fits all” mentality, as it doesn’t. Some kids are wildly more mature than others and more capable of being left alone in daylight hours, such as my friend Sally’s kids. She made sure she covered the bases when she and her husband started to leave their 9- and 12-year-old kids home alone. Sally says:

“They know about the phone, how to open/shut the door, and which is the nearest neighbor they could go to. We used to drill it into them, ‘What would you do if this happened? Or this?’ My in-laws used to freak out a bit about it all, until they saw how self-sufficient my kids were.”

The one thing I am very opposed to would be making my son feel responsible for my daughter until he’s at least 13 years old (making her 9 years old). I would never forgive myself if something happened when we were out and my son — a sensitive kid at the best of times — felt he was to blame.

If the state sets out rules regarding how we parent our kids, we lose more of our own control — our own ability to judge a situation. Every family, every child is different. I’m happy to pop over to the small corner shop that’s a 10-second walk from my house for a pint of milk — I even leave my front door open. But I wouldn’t leave my children alone in the car while I went grocery shopping. Whether or not you agree with this, I don’t care. I know my kids and I know what they’re capable of. When you don’t have family nearby to call upon for help, you have to use your instincts about what you should do when the need to leave your kids home alone arises. Every day as parents we make calls: what they eat, the games they play, the TV shows they watch, whether they can use tablets and phones. This is simply another judgment call. One that you and your kids need to be happy with — and no one else.

So what do you think? Is there ever a case where you think it’s OK to leave your child home alone?

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

 

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