Many of us must have seen the 1990 American Christmas comedy Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister, a boy who is mistakenly left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two would-be burglars.
That was fiction but what about real life?
Much has been said, pondered or speculated about the what the law says about leaving children alone and unsupervised and this has been especially true in the UK after the mysterious disappearance of British three-year-old Madeleine McCann nine years ago on May 3, 2007.
She is believed to have been abducted from her family’s holiday apartment in Praia de Luz, Portugal, while her parents and up to seven friends enjoyed a night out in a tapas bar some 50 or so yards away. Madeleine was left sleeping in the same room as her younger twin brother and sister with no babysitter and one outside door left unlocked. Her parents sought to ensure the children’s safety through a series of checks being made by themselves or one of their friends every half-hour.
It was when it was Madeline’s mother Kate’s turn to check that she raised the alarm that her daughter was not in bed or anywhere in the apartment. Since then, there has been a wealth of people asking questions on social media and elsewhere about what the law says about leaving children alone.
When I was aged seven, my parents left my 14-year-old sister in charge when they went to see a movie. Later, when I reached 14, I regularly babysat youngsters while their parents went out. It paid quite well, I seem to remember.
So, is 14 some sort of magic age in UK law when you are considered mature enough to be responsible for younger children? And, at what age can you legally leave them alone?
Well, surprising as it may be, UK law doesn’t specify an age when you can leave a child on their own but it is an offence to leave a child alone if it places him or her at risk. So, it is up to parents to be responsible and to use their judgement on how mature their child is before deciding to leave him or her alone at home – or even in a car.
The children’s charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has some pretty exacting guidelines which can be found on the government website that addresses the question of leaving children alone: https://www.gov.uk/law-on-leaving-your-child-home-alone.
The NSPCC says that children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time; that children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight; and that babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone.
There is also a stark warning that “Parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised ‘in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.”