What age can children stay home alone? Here in Australia, there is no universal law that outlines at what age children can stay at home alone.
- There is no universal age in Australia at which it is illegal to leave a child unsupervised; however, every state and territory has legal expectations regarding a parent’s responsibility for children’s safety
- In Queensland, children under the age 12 are not allowed to be left unsupervised ‘for an unreasonable time’; other states and territories don’t mention specific ages but have clear laws about child safety and parental responsibilities
- Leaving children alone in cars is never recommended; dangers include overheating, abduction or accidental disengagement of the parking brake and gear shifter
The law is clear in every state and territory about the responsibility of parents to look after the safety of their children, however. The law says you must make ‘reasonable’ considerations for your child’s safety, and looks at a variety of circumstantial factors to determine if a parent has been negligent.
Queensland is the only state that mentions a specific age limit:‘a person who, having the lawful care of a child under 12 years, leaves the child for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time, commits a misdemeanour.’
A maximum penalty of three years in prison applies.
In other states and territories, there is no specific mention of a set age at which children must not be left alone, although there’s still an expectation of ‘reasonableness’ in a parent’s responsibilities regarding child safety.
For example, it might be considered reasonable for a parent to leave a mature 14-year old home for an hour while they duck out to buy groceries, whereas doing the same with an unsupervised four-year old would be considered unreasonable.
If you’re letting your child walk to and from school on their own, for example, the law might look at several different factors to determine reasonableness such as the child’s age, the distance they’re travelling, their familiarity with the route, the time of day they’re completing the walk, etc.
Leaving a younger child at home with an older sibling doesn’t necessarily get parents off the hook, either. If that older child is still under 18, the courts will take their overall capacity to care and maturity level into consideration.
If something goes wrong, the parent could be held liable or cited for negligence for both the supervising youngster and the younger child. Every situation is different.
These laws and policies are put in place to protect children, not to make life more convenient for parents. For example, if the idea of ringing up Uber to have a driver drop off your 11-year old son at karate lessons sounds like a handy idea, think again: Uber won’t transport an unsupervised child under the age of 18.
You’ll also find that Qantas, Virgin and other Australian airlines have very strict protocols regarding the transport of unaccompanied minors on aircraft – which is as it should be.
Leaving children unsupervised in cars can be quite dangerous too. They can quickly develop heat exhaustion in warmer weather. If they get bored and start fiddling with the cars buttons and knobs (especially the parking break and gear shifter), they can put themselves in danger.
Someone might try to steal the vehicle with your child still inside, or try to abduct your unsupervised child from the car.
You can find out about individual state and territory laws regarding child safety here.
What parents should consider when leaving your children at home alone?
Children mature at different rates and some show a level-headed sense of responsibility earlier in life than others. If you leave your children in the care of an older sibling or teenage friend, you need to think about how that supervising child would cope if there was a fire, a break-in, an accident or other unexpected calamity while you’re gone.
When you stop and think about all the things a child left home alone has to be able to do (and has to know), it’s a tremendous responsibility. Is it fair and reasonable to ask a child to shoulder that burden?
Any child left home on their own must have a clear understanding of the ground rules – and a record of adhering to them. They should know where you’re going, how long you’ll be gone and how to get in touch with you at all times.
They should be able to use the phone and know where all relevant emergency numbers can be found.
Do they know where the first aid kit is and how to use it? Are they allowed to go outside, play in the pool, invite friends over, go to the shops or visit a neighbour? What are their responsibilities regarding pets?
Do they know what to do if there’s a strange phone call or a knock on the door? What’s their plan if there’s a fire? Do they know to operate deadbolts and window locks around the house?
Are they capable of determining if another child is sick and know what to do about it? These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself before thinking about leaving children to fend for themselves.
Homes are meant to be safe places but they contain plenty of dangers for kids too: swimming pools, matches, alcohol, poisonous chemicals, sharp objects and more. Think about the risks around your home and how you might be able to minimise them for unsupervised children.