When Can You Leave Your Children Home Alone?

Girl sitting alone on wooden staircase
Girl sitting alone on wooden staircase

We've all been there. You urgently need to buy a pint of milk or to post a letter and the thought of loading your children in the car or getting them dressed to walk there is less than appealing.

Now, for some parents, there's no question – they'd never leave them unattended. Not until they're teenagers. And maybe longer. These parents stomp to the coat cupboard, sighing along the way.

Other mums and dads, though, ditch the sigh, grab their car keys and shout to their kids that they'll be back in a jiffy. The kids are happy watching TV or playing and it's not as if they'll be long.

So who is right?

Parents in the first camp tend to have the strongest views, often dropping their jaw in horror at the actions of those in the second.

Imagine all the things that could go wrong, they think. "I was once left in the house at the age of six with my eight-year-old brother," says Louise, a 40-year-old mum. "Our mum had popped out to the shops and wouldn't be long. We played in the garden where, unbeknownst to us, there was a piece of glass from a broken window that hadn't yet been cleared up.

"It ripped open my thigh and I needed help quickly. My brother didn't know what to do, nor did I. Even if he had known to call 999, would he have known what to do if I was choking or how to get everyone out quickly in the event of an electrical house fire? It seems nothing can go wrong, but what if it does?"

These parents who are adamantly opposed to leaving kids unattended will often say that leaving children under 10 on their own is against the law anyway. A recent YouGov survey found a large majority of parents believe this.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it simply isn't true. There is no official lower age limit, although parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised "in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health."

Indeed, not so long ago, a mother who left her son of 14 looking after his three-year-old brother while she popped to the shops for half an hour got a police caution for cruelty, and in 2010 social services threatened to intervene with the parents of an eight-year-old and five-year-old who allowed their children to cycle a mile to school unaccompanied.

The law may become clearer in the future, particularly if Action for Children gets its way. This charity's campaign calls for the 80-year-old Children and Young Persons Act 1933 to be amended in order to give vulnerable children greater protection under the law, and avoid caring and responsible families suddenly finding themselves open to prosecution.

"As it stands, though, it's not against the law for me to leave my eight-year-old daughter with her two younger brothers and I'm quick to remind my friends of this when they criticise me for doing it for short periods," says Sarah, a 32-year-old mum.

Like many parents who see nothing wrong in it, she also defends her actions by pointing out that she would only do it if she felt her child was responsible enough.

"My daughter may be only eight, but she's extremely responsible and used to helping me, as a single mum, look after her two younger brothers aged five and three. So I see no problem with getting her to watch them every now and then for five minutes or so.

"I'm not out long enough for anything to go really wrong, but it does help knowing she knows the speed dial number on the house phone to my mobile, as well as being well aware of the number 999."

The debate becomes even more tricky when kids get older. Parents who were once firmly opposed to leaving their kids suddenly find themselves with the following kinds of dilemmas. If their responsible 10 or 11 year-old takes public transport into school every day on their own, wouldn't it make sense for them to be left at home alone for a short time every now and then?

If your 14-year-old's best friend of the same age has a babysitting job, is it right that you refuse to leave your child alone in their own home?

And is it really right to ban a 16-year-old from being at home on their own if you're trying to prepare them for university life in just a couple of years' time? Decisions not just about whether to leave children alone, but for how long, come into play.

The bottom line, say experts, is that there's no one-size-fits-all and that parents should therefore not be too easily influenced by what other parents are doing. "All children are individual and many factors influence their development, confidence and abilities, so not all seven-year-olds – or any other age for that matter – will be the same as each other," explains a spokesperson for Family Lives, the family support organisation

The NSPCC agrees, although they don't rule out the age as being completely irrelevant. "Children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time," says a spokesperson. "Children under 16 shouldn't be left alone overnight. And babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone," says a spokesperson.

Other things to consider, says the charity, are the child's level of maturity and understanding, the place where the child will be left, how long and how often the child will be left alone and whether or not there are any other children with the child.

Some children may be afraid of being alone, adds Family Lives. "It is important that parents think about this. And parents shouldn't assume that an older child can and will be responsible for their child."

In the end, you know your child better than anyone, but always think through the risks and the consequences very carefully, she says.