Every child matures differently, which is why it can be so tricky to work out when they’re ready to take another step towards independence – whether that’s going out with friends or staying home alone.
Related: How to be the best parent
This year, the cost of living crisis is expected to put extra pressure on families who are faced with the soaring cost of after-school childcare. As we head into a new academic year, some parents may now be considering whether their child is old enough to make their own way home from school and stay at home alone until they get back from work.
We asked our charity partner, the NSPCC, for some guidance on how to make the decision that’s right for your family.
“For parents and carers when it comes to making the decision about whether to let their children stay home alone or go out unsupervised, this can be a particularly challenging time. We want to encourage parents and carers to think carefully about leaving children home alone or unsupervised, and also remind members of the public to look out for the children in their communities.”
Kam Thandi, NSPCC National Services Director
What age can you leave a child home alone?
Believe it or not, there’s no legal age at which a child can be left at home alone. It’s common for children to want more freedom as they grow up, especially as they make the transition from primary to secondary school, but it’s down to parents to decide when the time is right. However, it’s against the law to leave a child alone if it puts them at risk – and a child who doesn’t feel comfortable shouldn’t be left alone.
With this in mind, babies, toddler and pre-school children should never be left alone, even for a few minutes – and that includes leaving them in the car while you pop into a shop. While every child is different, the NSPCC doesn’t recommend leaving any child under the age of 12 home alone, particularly for longer periods of time, and says that children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight. But every child is different, and it’s not uncommon for older teenagers to feel anxious about being home alone, especially after dark – or if they have complex needs.
Tips on leaving your child at home alone
According to the NSPCC, these are some of the factors that you should consider before leaving your child at home alone.
- Are they ready to be home alone? Think about whether your child can deal with risks, will they behave responsibly, will they be safe. And perhaps most importantly, how does your child feel about this idea?
- Will they be safe and sound? If they are staying at home, make sure they have a parent’s or carer’s number, another trusted adult’s number and have a trusted adult in mind that they could go to in person, in an emergency.
- Talk to your child about scenarios they might face and how to stay safe. Ask them what they’d do and how they feel in these situations.
- Set clear boundaries to help your child know how they should behave when you’re not around. It’s a good idea to agree on some rules that suit their maturity before you leave them alone. Then give them a chance to build their independence by building your trust.
If you’re still unsure about whether your child is ready to be left at home alone, the NPSCC has created an online quiz to help you decide.
What age can you leave a child with a sibling?
If your child has an older brother or sister, you may feel more comfortable about leaving them at home together. Before you do this, think carefully about their relationship and whether they’re likely to fall out while you’re away – if they do, there won’t be an adult around to help them make the peace. Check that your older child feels comfortable about looking after their sibling, agree some house rules, and make sure that they know what to do – and who to contact – in an emergency. It’s also wise to have a few trial runs, where you leave siblings home alone for a short time, and gradually build up the amount of time that you’re away.
You could also consider hiring a babysitter, but bear in mind that if they’re under the age of 16 they’re too young to be legally responsible if your child comes to any harm. If you decide to go ahead, make sure that your babysitter is mature and responsible, knows what to do in an emergency, and has contact details for a nearby friend or neighbour.
When should you let your child go out alone?
Going out on their own is a huge milestone for children, with many getting their first taste of freedom by visiting the local shop, heading to the park with friends, or walking to or from school without an adult.
Again, there’s no set age when your child is legally allowed to do this, so it’s important to make your decision based on your child’s confidence and maturity. Some parents find that it helps to gradually increase their child’s independence – so you could walk them part of the way to school, or let them walk to the shop while you watch from a distance. It also helps to build confidence if they can walk with a friend. Over time you can then build up to longer trips, such as shopping with friends or cinema visits. Just make sure you know where they want to go, what they want to do, who they will be with and how far they will travel – and check that they have two trusted adult’s phone numbers in case of an emergency.
Boost your child’s independence with GoHenry
A GoHenry prepaid debit card for kids can be a useful tool as you guide your child towards independence. Whether they want to order a takeaway, take the bus into town or stop for a snack with friends, you’ll know that they can access money when they need it – and you can top up their balance with a couple of taps if they’re running short. You’ll also receive a real-time notification each time they spend, so it’s easy to keep track of their spending – and their whereabouts – while they enjoy their newfound freedom.