At what age can I leave my child home alone or with siblings by law and how do I make sure they’re safe?

By [email protected] (Lauren Abbott)

Can I leave my child home alone?

With the half term holidays about to start and parents juggling children off school, work and childcare it is a question many parents may be asking themselves.

With no specified legal age that a child can be left indoors by themselves it is a choice that rests solely with parents and carers.

Advice included on the government’s official website makes it clear the law does not give an age when a child can be left – but reminds parents it is an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk.

Parents instead, are told to use their judgment when it comes to deciding how mature their youngster is to manage such a responsibility.

The NSPCC has a raft of information on its website to help parents reach sensible conclusions about how well their child may manage at home by themselves – while there is also some advice for families considering letting their children outside unsupervised for the first time too.

The charity admits that knowing when children have reached such milestones is a ‘tricky decision’ for parents to make.

What is the advice?

Breaking it down into age groups in its guides, the NSPCC recommends parents avoid leaving older primary pupils under the age of 12 home alone, and definitely never for any significant length of time, while no child under 16 should be left by themselves over night.

It adds: “Children in primary school aged six to 12 are usually too young to walk home from school alone, babysit or cook for themselves without adult supervision. If you need to leave them home, it’s worth considering leaving them at a friend’s house, with family or finding some suitable childcare.”

But whatever the child’s age, parents are encouraged to think about whether their children are ready to be independent or not – this could include not only whether they’re old enough but also do they have enough knowledge and confidence to deal with potential risks alongside asking them how they feel about being indoors by themselves.

It would also help parents to understand from their offspring, suggests the charity, what parts of being home alone may worry a child, such as being afraid of the dark or a sudden knock at the door, so that where possible any potential worries can be resolved or scenarios established ahead of reaching a final decision.

But the NSPCC is quick to point out that any child worried about being left alone or who doesn’t look ready or comfortable with the responsibility shouldn’t ever be made to stay by themselves and instead cared for by a friend or relative if necessary.

What about sibling babysitters?

As with leaving a child by themselves, there is no specified legal age a child can babysit.

Many parents with older children or step-siblings often feel more comfortable about leaving children together, acknowledges the NSPCC, particularly if one sibling is older.

Considering how well your children get on when adults aren’t around, whether there is a risk they’ll fight, asking the older child whether they feel ready for the responsibility, agreeing house rules and coming up with an agreed safety plan for an emergency are all bases experts suggest should be covered before choosing to shut the door on brothers and sisters at home together.

The NSPCC also advises families to embark on a trial run while adults are close by and that when the time comes to leaving them, agreeing a suitable activity the children can enjoy together such as watching a film or playing a board game may also help time pass smoothly.

While there is no specified legal age a child can babysit it is worth noting however that there are laws about employing children. It’s therefore important to know, explains the NSPCC, that if you hire and pay a babysitter under the age of 16, then they’re too young to be legally responsible if harm comes to your child and so if you’ve left your child with someone who isn’t able to take care of them, this could be seen as neglect under the law.

Checklists before leaving

The NSPCC’s ‘Home or Out Alone’ campaign, first launched in 2021, shares advice and information with parents about safety issues, boundaries and building trust before any family makes the move and leaves children in the house by themselves or allows them to go out alone.

And for families getting ready to take either step for the first time there is also a checklist contained in its guide of things it advises parents do.

This includes ensuring children’s devices or technology they may use will keep them safe online, setting ground rules relating to friends coming over, activities or limitations on things they’re permitted to do such as cooking or preparing food, putting any dangerous objects or substances out of reach and what to do or say if for example, someone knocked at the door or rang the house phone.

This is alongside advice about making sure they understand what to do in an emergency, have a clear plan in place in the event of a problem and that they know who to call and how.

It is also suggested parents and children should build up any time apart, either inside or outside the home, slowly and steadily and that parents make a point of checking in often as well as giving a clear indication of when either they’ll be back home or they wish to see their child return to ease any lingering anxiety.

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