When is it safe to leave them home alone?

Living in a connected world makes it easier - and harder - to decide.

When I was around 10 or 11, and begging my mother to spare me the humiliation of a babysitter, she was sympathetic but firm. “If it was up to me, I would do it,” she'd say. “But unfortunately it’s against the law.”

When I got a bit older and demanded to know the name of this “law,” she confessed, somewhat defiantly, “It’s called the Law of Common Sense.”

If we’d lived in Queensland - the only state in Australia that has specific legislation on the matter - she could have replied “It’s called Criminal Code 1899, ‘Leaving a child under 12 unattended.’”

Elsewhere, the decision to leave a child home alone is - exactly as my mother implied - a judgment call. There are no hard-and-fast answers here (not even, if you read the fine print, for Queenslanders). And that goes double now that we live in a connected world. 

Being connected makes them safer, and more vulnerable

That fact has made decision-making for parents even more complex. On the one hand, there is security in knowing that - in theory at least - we can contact our kids at any time, and they us. And not just ring them, but see them on FaceTime, Skype or similar. 

But children’s ready access to the online world may create at least as many problems as it solves, when parents are unavailable to supervise. 

When they’re home alone, even in the teenage years (maybe even especially in the teenage years), it’s easy for kids to lose themselves in an online game - to tumble down the YouTube rabbit hole - to become embroiled in social media dramas - to start exploring weird porn - to binge-watch inappropriate Netflix shows - or enter into chat with dodgy strangers.

Because in an online world, you’re not really leaving them home “alone” at all - you’re leaving them at home with 4.48 billion strangers. (That’s the number of people who were active internet users as of October 2019.)

Age alone is clearly not a sound basis for decision-making. “You may feel very confident with a 13-year-old who is very responsible but worry about  a 16-year-old who may take risks,” notes a parenting guide prepared by the South Australian Department of Education. 

The length of time, and the time of day or night, is clearly also relevant for sound decision-making - even in Queensland, where the law forbids leaving under-12s unsupervised for an “unreasonable” period of time. What that might mean is open to interpretation.

shutterstock_538554016Maturity check

The health information website Webmd.com recommends parents carry out a “maturity check” before making any decisions - regardless of the child’s age - considering questions like:

 

  • Do you live in a quiet rural or residential neighborhood?
  • Does the area have a low crime rate?
  • Do you have an alarm system? Does your child know how to operate it?
  • Can your child understand and follow basic rules, like locking the door after coming inside and not opening it for strangers?
  • Has your child shown good judgment in past situations?
  • Do you have friends, family members, or neighbours who can get to your house quickly in case of an emergency?
  • Has your child shown signs of responsibility in the past? Examples include finishing homework on time without having to be asked and doing household chores.   
  • Is your child comfortable with the idea of staying home alone?

House rules

If the answers to those questions is yes, parents can move onto the next step, which is establishing clear, basic house rules - including 

  • What to do if the doorbell rings
  • What to do if the phone rings
  • Whether it's OK to have friends over, and if so, how many friends can come over
  • What kinds of snacks they can eat
  • Time limits on watching TV or playing computer or video games, and a list of approved programs and games

Finally, the experts at webmd.com recommend, “Make sure you’ve set up parental filters on your TV and computer.”

It’s what my mother would call The Law of Common Sense.

There's no law that says you need parental controls on your children's devices and your home network. But smart, sensible digital parents around the world trust Family Zone to keep their digital kids healthy and balanced. 

Start your free trial right now, and create a home where children thrive.

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Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, school holidays, safety, home alone

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