I was probably about nine.
I had two younger brothers and a little sister and my mum (who didn’t work when we were small) would sometimes pop out to the shops and leave me and my sister, just 16 months older, ‘in charge’. Nothing happened.
Sometimes she’d go next door for a cup of tea and a chat with our neighbour Gail and if we were happily playing or watching TV at home, she’d leave us there, saying, “Yell out if anything happens.” Nothing happened.
I loved being home alone. When mum went back to work and I was sick, but not too sick for her to stay home with me, those days were gold. I’d watch Beauty and The Beast, then Days Of Our Lives and eat Milo from the can (for medicinal purposes). And nothing happened.
Was that luck or was it just life?
Another parenting dilemma: what age would you let your kids’ ears be pierced? (Post continues after audio.)
There has been a lot of talk for years about how young is too young to be left without adult supervision. Cases like the Madeleine McCann abduction fuel the fear, and parents look for an age, a fixed point in time their children will be safe. They’re also, I think, looking for the point they will be immune from blame.
When I was at school in the late 70s, I read a shocking story in the paper about two girls, aged maybe 9 and 10 who’d been murdered in north Queensland. I can picture their faces and I remember the story, but I can’t recall questions about why they were walking home without an adult. There was nothing but sympathy for their families.
The same with the disappearance of the three Beaumont children in Adelaide in 1966. People who remember the case talk of an outpouring of grief for their parents. No one questioned (publicly), why such young kids were off to the beach on their own.
Contrast that with the questions that swirl around the McCanns: what were they thinking, leaving small children asleep in their apartment while they went out for dinner? How can they ever forgive themselves? I imagine they’ve torn themselves apart asking that question.
When I heard what happened to the McCanns, and listened to the ‘who would leave their children like that’ comments, I thought of the camping trips we enjoy with other families a few times a year.
The last known photo of Madeleine McCann. Image via Facebook.
After the kids have been fed and (maybe) bathed, they’d be zipped into their sleeping bags in their respective family tents and the adults would spend the night around the fire, drinking red wine, eating Tim Tams and sorting out the world’s problems. Every once in a while we’d scoot to the tents, never more than a dozen or so metres away, but hard to see in a dark campground, and check on the kids. Nothing happened – to us or the dozens of other groups doing exactly the same thing. Which wasn’t much different to the McCanns going out for tapas.
It’s different, though, leaving kids asleep and away from home than leaving school-aged kids at home without an adult around.
That’s the question many parents are asking, ‘What’s the age?’ they say, ‘I think I heard it’s 12?’
I wonder, are they concerned about getting booked? Surely if the boogey man came to the door on a headless horse and snatched their kid, being in trouble with the police would be the least of their worries.
The fact is, Queensland is the only state that stipulates a specific age where a child can be left home alone, which is 12 and older. However, all kids and families are different, and there needs to be room for interpretation should a case get to court.
If a 14-year-old is left in charge of younger siblings, with no clue when mum or dad is getting home, no food in the house and a phone out of order, then quite rightly, those parents could be charged with neglect.
Kate: There are so many shades of grey when thinking about leaving kids at home.
You might have an 11-year-old kid who is calm and responsible, completely fine to be left while his mum collects his sister from gymnastics. If someone rings the doorbell he knows not to answer it. He’s never shown much interest in knives and fire, so there’s no reason to think he’ll get experimental in the 30 minutes he’s left alone.
There are 14, 15, 16-year-old kids who will see a parental car pulling out of the driveway as a licence to let unleash chaos.
Independence and confidence has to come sometime and it doesn’t magically descend on a kid’s 12th birthday. Ask any parent of a high schooler, and they’ll say time passes in a blip. Before you know it, they can have sex, drive, drink alcohol and go to war. They need to be taught how to make decisions and be responsible for themselves. It’s not an app for their iPhone that can be downloaded when the time is right.
Just to be clear. I’m not talking about leaving five-year-olds at home while you get your hair done. Or your 13-year-old on her own if you go to Hamilton Island for a friend’s wedding.
But there’s a lot of grey around leaving kids when they’re becoming teenagers. Lots of questions that parents grapple with. One thing we know for sure is that responsibility grows responsibility and kids will rise to the challenge if we give them one. Babying them forever keeps them babyish.
It’s not about, ‘never forgiving ourselves if something goes wrong,’ but giving our kids every chance to make sure things go right.
At what age did you leave your kids home alone? When were you left home alone for the first time?
Parents were divided when a mum asked if it was okay to leave her children home along during the school holidays. To read more, click here.
Want to know more about the laws on leaving your kids at home? Click here.
To read more stories on parenting, click here.