Christmas is on its way, so that means (to me and countless others, anyway) – it’s time to get out the Home Alone DVD.
We’ve all seen it. The story of an eight-year-old boy left behind to fend for himself after his family accidentally forget to take him away with them for Christmas, leaving him to fight off two would-be burglars all by himself.
It’s a Christmas classic, but the story behind the festive family viewing sparks a rather interesting and controversial debate – is it ever OK to leave a child at home on their own?
Of course, in the film, Kevin’s parents leave him by mistake, but there are many parents who have different views on how old a child should be before it is acceptable to leave them on their own.
In the news earlier this month was the story of a woman fighting to overturn a police caution she was given in 2006 for leaving her then six-year-old son home alone.She had left him for 45 minutes while she went on a driving lesson.
The woman, only known as Joan, told the Sunday Times that the lesson had been her last before she took her test and she had tried in vain to find someone to look after her boy.
She said: “We went to the school but it was closed. There was no one home to look after him. He was in no danger when I left him.”
She returned to find the police on her doorstep after a nurse called at the house and the boy answered the door.
Joan went to her local police station and was given a caution, which has since meant she’s struggled to pursue her chosen career as a mental health nurse and because of this, she’s now trying to have the caution removed.
I am not a mother myself but it seems to me that parenting is an endless series of judgment calls.
When is your child old enough to stay up later than 7pm? When are they old enough to go to a party where there could be drugs and alcohol?
Whatever the right answer may be varies from child to child, depending on lots of factors including personality, experience and values.
But it helps to have some rough age guidelines to help parents decide when their child is ready to take the next step in the growing up process.
At the moment, UK law doesn’t stipulate an age when you can leave a child on their own, but it is an offence to leave a child alone if it places them at risk.
According to the NSPCC, children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time, children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight and babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone.
When I was about 12 or 13, I myself was a ‘latchkey kid’ who had to stay on my own for two hours after school every day until my parents got home from work.
Quite frankly, I adored the freedom it gave me. It gave me the chance to stuff as many chocolate bars as I could find down my throat without getting a lecture, and watch endless music channels.
But I know my mum worried constantly that she was doing the wrong thing and being a bad parent.
It could be argued that leaving children at home on their own is a crucial step for a child to find their independence. They have to think for themselves and act responsibly because there is nobody else around to do so.
However, a YouGov poll commissioned by The Times found that two thirds of parents want the government to set a minimum age limit that is legally binding, opining that leaving families to judge for themselves when it is safe to leave a child, is inadequate.
In the poll, 12 was the youngest age at which most parents felt comfortable leaving a child at home for an hour, with 61% saying that this would be generally safe.
But would a 12-year-old be able to cope with a house fire? Should they bear the responsibility if they can’t get everyone out?
Would a 12-year-old know what to do when confronted by a burglar? It all seems fine if nothing goes wrong – but the question is, what if it does?
Taking that risk is a decision that Kate and Gerry McCann will spend the rest of their lives paying for after they left their three-year-old daughter Madeleine and her younger siblings asleep 50m away while they dined with friends on holiday in Portugal in May 2007.
As we all know, Madeleine was abducted from the apartment and no trace of her has been found ever since.
It is an admittedly foolish and misguided mistake that will haunt her parents forever.
But, experts say that the bottom line is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ method and that parents should therefore not be too easily influenced by what others are doing.
A spokesperson for Family Lives, the family support organisation, said: “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.”
Other things to consider, say the charity, are the child’s level of maturity and understanding, where the child will be left, how long the child will be left alone and whether or not there are any other children with the child.
In the end, nobody knows your child better than you, but it is always essential to think through the risks and the consequences very carefully, the spokesperson added.
Deciding if your child is ready to be left home alone is not an easy decision.
There are lots of things to think about, with no hard and fast ‘home alone’ rules or laws because every child is different. Whether you or your child are comfortable with the idea will often depend on how mature and adaptable your child is.
There is no set age for leaving children home alone. The law simply says that you shouldn’t leave a child alone if they’ll be at risk. There’s such a wide variation in the rate that children mature that it would be almost impossible to come up with a ‘one size fits all’ law, says the NSPCC. Instead, the choice is left to parents. They know their children best and can use their own judgment.
That’s not to say that there are no laws on leaving children home alone. Parents who are judged to have put a child at risk by leaving them on their own can be taken to court and even sent to prison.
The NSPCC have issued a list of things you should consider before debating whether to leave a child home alone. Although there is no definite answer about whether the time is right to leave them alone at home, it will certainly give you plenty to think about.
Does your child seem to be responsible and mature for their age and always do what you tell him or her?
Would they be able to fix themselves something to eat and drink and would you be happy with them using the cooker or microwave?
Can you imagine how they’d cope in an emergency like a power cut or a flooded bathroom?
Would they know what to do if the phone rang or someone came to the door?
Would they know how to contact you or another family member or friend if they needed to?
How would they feel about being left alone – pleased to be given the responsibility or scared by the thought of it?