As your kids mature, develop more skills and become more independent, you may naturally start to wonder whether you can leave them home alone for short periods of time. It all depends on the age and maturity level of your child, but there can be various benefits for both you and them in extending that extra bit of trust.
Safety tips for kids at home alone
At what age can I leave my child home alone?
Is there an age when you can be sure that you can safely leave your child at home and trust they won’t get into anything dangerous in the house, or open the door to any stranger who knocks?
Although there is no minimum legal age for leaving a child at home in Australia, the Commonwealth Family Law Act places a legal demand on parents to provide ‘safety’ and ‘supervision.’
It is only in Queensland where the law states that a parent who leaves a child under 12 unattended for “an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time commits a misdemeanour.” What constitutes an unreasonable time depends on the circumstances.
Even though parents leave younger children home with older siblings, parents are still legally responsible if the carer is under 18 (under 16 in Tasmania). If something goes wrong then a parent may be held responsible not only for their children but also for the carer aged under 18.
Ultimately, the decision will be based on your judgement of your child’s maturity, rather than just age alone. This involves thinking about whether your child could cope if something happened while you were out or if you weren’t able to get back. For example, you might feel confident leaving a 12-year-old who’s very responsible, but quite worried about a 15-year-old who takes a lot of risks.
If you’re not sure your child is ready, trust your judgment and wait until they're a bit older.
How long can I leave my child home alone?
Once again, there is no legal guidance around this. You will need to think about the age and maturity of your child, what you think they are capable of, and how they will feel. If you are unsure, don’t leave them at home, or start leaving them for a short period of time only.
Babies or toddlers should not be left at home alone under any circumstances no matter how short a time. Whereas teenagers might ask if they can stay at home alone as they are at an age of trying to experiment with independence.
Helpful tips for parents and their children on staying safe at home alone
Preparing and educating your child
Method of contact. Ensure your child knows how to get in touch with you whether it be a smartphone they have or a landline.
000. Ensure they know what the 000 number is for and when to call. Leave your home address and telephone number by the phone. If they are too young to read, practice saying their address out loud with them.
Set rules for when you are away. Maybe your rule is that they cannot make toast, turn on the heater or make a hot drink when you’re gone. Draw up a list of things your child can do when they're at home alone – for example, playing in their room, drawing or reading. Other good rules are for your child to phone you when they get in from school, and for you to phone if you’re going to be late.
Practice. For example, for the rule ‘don’t open the door’, leave home, come back and knock on the door 10 minutes later and see what they do.
Set rules for answering the phone. Installing an answering machine means your child can hear who is calling and then decide to answer or not. For kids, always say to the person calling, “My parents can’t come to the phone. Can I take a message?” Never say your parents aren’t home to anyone who calls or comes to the door or who you chat to online. Likewise, never tell your address or name to the person calling or contacting you online. If the person asks for your name, say “Who would you like to speak to?” and if they make you feel uncomfortable, or say something rude, hang up immediately and contact your parents.
Have a ‘plan B’. Provide the number of a trusted adult your child can call if they can’t reach you on your phone. Write down phone numbers or save them in your child’s phone.
Know your neighbour’s house. If your child is to run to a neighbour’s in an emergency, make sure they know which house to run to, especially if they look the same.
Locks. Make sure your child knows how locks and other safety features work.
Role-play emergency situations. This will help your child know what to do in such an event. For example, if there’s smoke or a fire, the plan may be that your child should go next door immediately and ring 000 from there. But if the dog runs away, they should just call you instead of emergency services.
First aid kit. Make sure they know where the first aid kit is located and how to use it.
Create a special family password or code. This is something they can use if you call and they need help.
Build up gradually. You could start with leaving your child for a few minutes while you go to the corner shop and build up to leaving them for an hour or so.
Conduct a safety audit your house. Put dangerous chemicals and items such as flammable liquids, matches and heater cords out of reach. Turn the stove off at the wall.
Arrange activities and tasks. To prevent your children from getting bored or lonely, it may help to leave them some tasks or a routine to follow – for example, do homework, set the table for dinner and then have free time.
Check in. If you’re leaving your child for more than a few hours (or even the whole day), you could arrange for a trusted adult to pop in during the day, or you could phone to touch base at various points.
It's also worth having a plan for what to do if your child loses her key or comes home and finds the door open.
If you decide your child isn’t ready for being home alone, you can look into babysitters, outside-school-hours care and other types of child care.