School holidays give us a break from the packed lunches and the school run - but who looks after the children when you have to work? You've got most weeks covered: sports courses, friends and family. But there may still be some days when your pre-teen or teen is going to be home alone.
At what age is it safe to leave your young teen alone for the day? Legally you may be surprised to discover that there is no minimum age: however if your child comes to harm, you could be prosecuted.
All parents know that children are totally different: your 13-year-old daughter may be a model of maturity, whereas your 14-year-old son is barely responsible enough to look after the hamster, let alone himself or a younger sibling.
Most parents' imagination runs riot at the thought of what could happen: accidents involving fire, strangers in the house, friends causing mayhem, or your child leaving the house through boredom and ending up goodness knows where.
If you know that your child is going to be home alone, setting very clear boundaries is vital.
It goes without saying they should have your contact numbers - landline and mobile - and those of a neighbour or friend in case of emergency. If your child is going to be home alone for a whole day, call them at least once. It might also be a good idea to ask a friendly neighbour to pop along just to check all is OK – but warn your child this may happen, especially if they are told not to answer the door.
Opening the door.
Don't, unless they know who is on the other side. Dorothy remembers being left home alone when she was 12: her parents had a signal - a double ring of the bell - to tell her it was one of her family if they didn't have their keys.
This isn't foolproof, but something along these lines is one option. If your child can see who is at the door by looking out of an upstairs window – unobserved - that helps.
Answering the phone
Yes, your child can answer the phone but it's not a good idea to tell callers they are home alone. Far better is to say that mum or dad is busy and will call them back soon.
They should also not get into conversations where they give personal information to the caller, such as their home address, name and any other personal details.
Food glorious food
Scalds, burns, cuts and fires. We don't want to go there. You know your own child best. If there is any chance that they could set fire to something they are cooking – chip pans or recipes using lots of oil are a no-no – then leave them food which is easily heated up and doesn't require sharp knives to prepare!
It's natural that your child may want a friend round for company. First, do check that the friend's family is happy about the arrangements and know you won't be there.
Second, make sure the friend knows that the rules apply to them too! If you aren't happy about the friend - and let's face it, the friend may be a source of concern - then say no. The biggest danger is that more friends will be invited – before you know it, a party is in full swing.
Leaving one child alone may be fine - but what about a younger sibling? Only you know what your child can cope with. If your kids fight all day long, is it wise to leave them alone? But if they are used to babysitting for a couple of hours, they may rise to the responsibility.
You go off to work happy that your child is safely installed at home following your rules – only to find they go out and meet other people. This is the kind of conversation you need to have beforehand.
If you are the type of parent who wants to know where your child is and who they are with, then they need to tell you where they are.
The Trial Run
If this is the first time your child will be home alone, a trial run is essential, perhaps at a weekend. You can do this as far ahead as possible, and gradually increase the time they are left.
Leave The Rules for them to follow.
What age did you first leave your child home alone? Any other tips to offer?