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Leaving a child or children “home alone” can land a parent or responsible caregiver in plenty of trouble – particularly when a child is considered “too young” , the time alone “too long” or the assigned “caregiver” is not considered responsible enough. So what are the rules around childcare?
By law, every child under the age of 14 years must not be left alone by a parent or caregiver for a time that is unreasonable, or under conditions that are unreasonable, without adequate supervision and care. (s.10B Summary Offences Act 1981).What is considered ‘reasonable’ can cause considerable confusion for parents – cultural expectations, economic or work stresses, and their own childhood experiences can lead to very different ideas about what is okay.
While the law provides some flexibility when it comes to the circumstances in which children may be left unsupervised, parents and caregivers are required to assess all the circumstances and make sure that children and young people are safe and not in danger or at an unacceptable risk of harm.
This law applies to leaving children at home unsupervised and in places outside the home too such as libraries, shopping centres, playgrounds and swimming pools.
Before leaving a child unattended or under the care of another young person, parents and caregivers must consider:
It is NEVER okay to leave a baby or young child unsupervised. Things can go wrong very quickly with babies. A baby can rapidly develop a fever, choke, wake up frightened, upset or in discomfort. Even a few minutes can be a long time for a baby who is hungry, frightened or in pain.
Toddlers and young children are curious, love to explore and can quickly get into danger because they are too young to understand the risks involved. Simply telling them not to do something will not stop curiosity and it only takes a few seconds for a young child to come to serious harm.
There are a number of childcare options available to suit the needs of parents and caregivers to very young children:
Older children under the age of about 14 are not sufficiently mature to be left without adult supervision on a regular basis, or for more than a short period of time. It may be tempting for parents to leave children alone for an hour or two after school. However, at this age there are still many risks. Unsupervised children are at risk from household or cooking accidents, fire, poisoning, unmonitored internet and phone access and playing with weapons. They are also more likely to get into trouble or put themselves at risk of harm without adult supervision and guidance.
If an older child is left alone for a short time, parents or caregivers need to make sure the child knows where they are and who they can contact if there is a problem. Parents also need to check that their older child feels confident left alone and that they know what to do if they need assistance.
Leaving a young person over the age of fourteen at home alone may still be inappropriate, especially if it is for extended periods of time (such as a weekend) or the young person lacks the maturity to safely care for themselves. Whilst it is true that young people need to practice independence and sensible decision making, this needs to be done within a protective environment where an adult is close at hand and can be called in any emergency.