Written by Domenica Caridi
What age can you leave your child at home alone? This is how old your kids legally need to be before they can be left alone.
The school holidays can prove to be a childcare headache for working parents and deciding if your child is ready to be left home alone can be a tricky decision.
There are lots of things to think about. Plus, there are 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 – and we all know how much this can vary from child to child.
The advice below is there to help you make up your mind about whether leaving your child home alone is a good idea, as well as tips on what you can do if you are worried about a child who is being left at home alone.
What the law says
If you are a parent in Australia and have wondered it is illegal to leave children home alone or what is the right age to leave kids alone at home, here is what you can do.
In Australia the law differs from state to state and, strange as it may seem, in most of them there is no set age for leaving children home alone. The law simply says that you should not leave a child alone if they will be at risk. But the law does state that you should not leave little ones alone at home or in a car if they could be exposed to risks.
This means parents can be left to decide if their kids are mature enough to be home alone.
There is 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. Instead, the choice is left to parents. They know their children best and can use their own judgement.
That is not to say that there are no laws on leaving children unsupervised.
Under the Australian laws, parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect. This means that they can be fined or sent to prison if they are judged to have placed a child at risk of harm by leaving them at home alone, regardless of where in Australia the child lives.
In Victoria it is an offense for a person responsible for a child to leave the child unattended for any longer than is reasonable, without making appropriate arrangements for the child’s supervision and care. This includes leaving a child at home, or in a car, or anywhere else unattended. This offence is governed by section 494(1) of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005.
The age of the child is not specified in the act and the expectation is to consider what is reasonable for a parent or guardian to have done in the circumstances. It depends on the child and the situation.
From 21 January 2015, the penalty for leaving children unattended is a fine of 25 penalty units or imprisonment for six months or both.
Leaving children unattended at home
There might not be a specific legal age to leave children alone but it’s safe to say babies, toddlers and young children should never be left alone, even if it’s just while you pop down the road. Even if they’re sleeping peacefully when you leave, they could well wake up and get very upset when you’re not there to look after them. They would not be able to protect themselves in an emergency and may even try to leave the property to find you.
Part of growing up is becoming more independent, step by step. Being left at home alone is part of developing independence and parents are in the best position to decide whether their child is mature enough to be left alone for any length of time.
Our advice on leaving a child alone
Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone
Children under the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency and should not be left at home alone for a long period of time
Children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight
Parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect if it is judged that they placed a child at risk by leaving them at home alone
A child should never be left at home alone if they do not feel comfortable with this, regardless of their age
If a child has additional needs, these should be considered when leaving them at home alone or with an older sibling
When leaving a younger child with an older sibling think about what may happen if they were to have a falling out - would they both be safe?
Leaving children in cars
Leaving a young child unsupervised in a car at any time is very dangerous. Never leave babies or young children alone in a car, even to run a quick errand.
Even in mild weather, cars quickly become too hot for small children. It can be 20 to 30 degrees hotter inside a car than the temperature outside. Children are more at risk from heat-related problems because their body temperature can rise three to five times faster than an adult's, and they can lose fluid very quickly. They become dehydrated, leading to heat stroke, organ damage and potentially death.
The Victorian Government in partnership with Kidsafe Australia has launched an awareness campaign to highlight the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars.
Help to decide
Parentline Victoria 1300 30 1300 is a telephone counselling service provided by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development that can help parents with these kinds of decisions. Parents can also find links to information on the Parentline website to help them decide whether their child is ready to be left at home alone.