At what age can you leave your child home alone? | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

CHILDCARE during the school holidays is a headache for most parents. Back-to-back summer camps are often the survival strategy of choice, but the options are limited for children who are too old for camps and too young to get a summer job. For many parents who travel to work, leaving their young teenager home alone during the day is the only solution. But are they old enough to be left to their own devices?

As there is no “legal minimum age” a child can be left unsupervised, the debate on the age to leave a child at home varies from parent to parent. The only official guideline is in a recent Tusla document which states: “In Ireland, children under 14 years of age are not seen to be mature enough to be left alone or unsupervised.”

For some, the guideline of 14 years of age is too cautious. They may reference their childhood experiences, saying, for example, “I had my own key to our house by the time I was 10”, or “I babysat my two younger siblings by the age of 11”. But while this may be true, it doesn’t make it right.

The world was a different place in the 1970s and 1980s and children were different too. I grew up in the 80s and was much more independent than my 2020s children. When I was 10, I cycled for miles on country roads alone and was often responsible for letting myself into our house (using the key under the potted plant). 

By the time I was 12, I was cooking for myself. When I say “cooking”, I mean everything went into our deep-fat fryer and was eaten once it looked cooked. I didn’t feel lonely or neglected, but I don’t recollect feeling carefree either. Perhaps this was because I accepted it was the norm at the time and I was no different to many of my peers of a similar age.

The freedom we had must be viewed in the context of the times. There was much less traffic on the roads, so cycling everywhere was less risky, but there was a more omnipresent sense of community.

My family home was on the Dublin-Wicklow border in a rural townland, and despite my neighbours being a distance away, I knew every one of them and they knew me. Everyone knew everyone else’s business too, which may have been undesirable from a privacy point of view, but it was highly beneficial from a child-rearing and supervision perspective. This tight-knit community typified the claim “it takes a village to rear a child” and local parents could take more risks with their children’s independence because there were so many neighbours looking out for them and willing to report back to their parents if they were doing something out of line.

Disturbing events of the past can cause hesitation

The community I grew up in and the one my children live in are vastly different. We currently live in a quiet estate in Carlow town and while I would know my neighbours to see and wave to, I have no in-depth knowledge of their lives nor they of mine. This is not just the case in Carlow. We have lived in Wicklow and Dublin over the past 10 years and our relationships with our neighbours were similarly superficial. I would doubt that the majority of my neighbours know my children’s names, never mind any knowledge of what they are doing. This is not a criticism — the same vagueness exists in my knowledge of their children too.

Private urban environments have changed how communities function collectively and so parents, including myself, have become more risk-averse regarding our children’s independence. Despite having thumbed lifts home from school aged 12 in the 1980s, I would be horrified if I observed my 13-year-old doing that now. The double standards are not lost on me, but I stand over my position. With the lack of intimate knowledge of who lives in our local communities, there are more unknowns to contend with than previous generations.

A number of events in our recent history have significantly impacted our perceptions of child safety. The disappearances of 13-year-old Phillip Cairns in 1986 and three-year-old Madeline McCann in 2007, the clerical child abuse revelations that emerged in the 1990s, not to mention the more recent revelations of abuse within the swimming and scouting communities mean that modern-day parents are understandably more cautious. These disturbing events impact our decisions and often convince parents to adopt a lower-risk strategy when building their child’s independence. And so, we go with our child to the shop rather than let them go alone to ease our own discomfort and anxiety.

In most cases, our tight grip on our children’s physical safety does not extend into our supervision of their digital worlds. In the virtual space, many parents allow their children to roam free under the illusion that they are not in danger as long as they are up in their room.

What to consider

I usually avoid using age guidelines for interventions with children and adolescents because the variation in maturity is so individual. Deciding whether your child can be left home alone depends on the child. However, there are some questions to consider when making your decision.

  • Is the child comfortable being at home alone?: We sometimes assume that all children want to be older and be given more autonomy, but that is not always the case. Some children may be anxious about being left alone, and this needs to be considered.
  • Are they going to be alone for long?: Start with short periods when the child is on their own, perhaps when you pop out to the shops. Make sure it is somewhere you can get back from if they need you and build up the time away as they adjust.
  • What time of the day is it?: Some children will be more comfortable being alone during the day than at night, so experiment with some day periods before leaving them alone at night or late evening.
  • Are there younger siblings to look after?: This adds an extra responsibility, and while some children might be particularly good carers of siblings, Tusla recommends that a child be 16 years old before taking on the role of babysitter.
  • Have you talked through possible challenges?: What to do if someone rings the doorbell. What to do if they are hungry. What number to call or neighbours to contact if they need any help.

It is crucial to see the development of your child as positive. With each step they take towards independence, they build a skill set that will help them to successfully navigate the world and relationships, not to mention the benefits to their self-worth.

  • Dr Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist


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