Home alone

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
February 17, 2011, 8:57 PM GMT+0

The case of a mother-of-three woman from the Thames Valley area who has been given a police caution for leaving her 14 year-old child home alone has sparked a debate on how old children should be before parents can safely leave them unaccompanied, and our poll has found that the perceived ‘right’ age hovers between 12 and 14.

  • On average, Brits believe that 12 and a half is an acceptable age from which parents can leave children alone for a short period
  • 10% said age ten was fine
  • While 19% felt 14 years and over was a suitable age
  • Just 1% apiece said age 7, and at the other end of the scale, age 18

However, it seems that this particular mother was cautioned primarily because her elder child was not just left alone, but left to care for his much younger sibling. When this element of babysitting is involved, the public’s estimation of the ‘right’ age increases.

  • The average age at which people thought leaving a child alone to care for a younger sibling is 14.8, around the same age as the cautioned woman’s elder child
  • And most felt that the ages 14 to 18 were best, with 23% choosing age 14
  • 29% choosing age 16
  • And a cautious 8% picking age 18 or older

Overprotected offspring?

The mother-of-three was cautioned by police when it was discovered she had left her 14 year-old son unaccompanied with his toddler sibling for around thirty minutes, despite there being no incident during her absence.

The law, however, makes no stipulation for minimum ages at which children can be left, although a child under age 16 is still technically a dependent, and so parents are liable to be charged if they are seen to be neglecting their child and/or putting them at risk.

Advice varies as to what age is suitable to leave children alone. The Government website, direct.gov.uk, stresses that parents should consider how mature the child is on a case by case basis, as this can vary greatly from child to child. It suggests that parents talk to their children about what to do in case of any emergency, as well as telling them not to open the door to strangers.

The NSPCC also warns parents that leaving older children for an evening is probably fine, but much longer than that is likely to be unacceptable. But some have said that the case, and subsequent debate, is evidence of too much legislation and a culture which encourages parents to overprotect offspring.

Justine Roberts, from the influential parenting website Mumsnet, told the BBC: ‘Ultimately the parents are the best judges, as they know both the caring child and one being cared for - and what their limits are’.

See the survey details and full results