This is not a definitive guide to leaving your children home alone or finding the right age for a teen babysitter. Each parent’s experience of leaving their children home without an adult will be different and precise laws do not exist. However if you’re wondering whether your children are old enough to be left alone so you can go out for the evening, read on. I have two children in secondary school so my plans and experiences might just help you think it through.
If you try searching the Internet for the law on this, you will struggle to get a straight answer. According to the NSPCC if a child is “at risk” then you’re breaking the law. This police website indicates that if the person babysitting is under 16, then the parent is still responsible, even if absent. Apart from that if you search the web you will get a lot of Netmums gossip or American law which does not apply in the UK.
If your older children feel alright about being left alone in daytime, then nighttime is the next thing to consider. At what age do they no longer need a babysitter when you go out for the evening? What if one is old enough, but they need to care for a younger sibling?
They may be alright, but it’s not the same for them as for an adult. These are children caring for children, and it’s not just inexperience which can be a hurdle, but also immaturity. Inexperience is something that can change quickly, but all children need time to simply grow up and mature. It’s not easy – or kind – to rush that.
Things to consider
• How many of them are there? Even if your eldest child is a big 15 year old, if s/he is looking after two or more smaller ones, how is s/he going to keep track?
• What is the age range? There are pros and cons here. One teenager caring for one much younger child is going to have a very different evening to one teenager caring for two arguing tweens. Or perhaps the tweens are fine and it’s a smaller tot who runs them ragged.
• How do they get on with each other when you are not there? This may be your ball and chain. If you know that your kids fight horribly, then you’re not going to be able to leave them as much as other parents with kids of the same age.
• How mature and responsible is your oldest child? How do you answer this question and how might other people answer this question? It’s time to think about how other people see your child.
As they grow old enough to be left a little more, then take things in stages. There is no throwing a switch from “too young” to “old enough”. No two children are alike. There are lots of grey areas and stages of development. Here are the steps I tried.
1. Leave them alone after dark for an hour or two. It’s amazing how different they feel when it’s dark outside. They need to be alright with this.
2. Leave them until just after bedtime. Go for an early bird dinner or a drink and come back early so they have not been in bed long, or only the eldest is still up. This is because they won’t be as relaxed knowing there’s no adult babysitter in the house, and they may struggle to get to sleep. Creep in the bedroom and let them know you are back!
3. Go out like normal, let them deal with bedtime alone and you come back later. However do tell them when you will be back, and stick to it. They have a big capacity to worry. Text if you are going to be delayed. I know they will probably be asleep but there’s a good chance they will wake and check their phone if you are not back.
We found that after step 2, our children were terribly excited that they had been trusted to an evening alone and were quite happy for us to try it again the next week. But we found it was too soon! After the second time they said “can we not do that again for a while?”. It turned out to be just a little stressful. Even something successful takes a while to get used to.
Write down what you want them to do while you are out such as times for lights out and whether anyone needs to do a chore before bed. Make sure they know how to leave the house in an emergency and where the key is. Most children don’t even know what the smoke alarm sounds like – do yours? Teach safety – I don’t need to tell you how, but I liked these tips on safety and these tips on talking it through with your child. Write down your contact info – even if they have it. Promise to check your phone hourly. It seems obvious but when I feel comfortable with a situation, this is the sort of thing I forget to do.
Maybe try an arrangement where the eldest child is allowed to stay up while you are out, as they would do if they were being a babysitter in someone else’s house. The children may be happier knowing someone is awake.
Be prepared for things to go backwards. It’s possible that after months of being able to go out without a babysitter, your child may just get the jitters. Perhaps there is a cause or perhaps it’s just a stage they are going through. But you may have to arrange for them to sleep over somewhere or get in a visiting relatives at some point again in the future. It won’t be for always.
What has worked with your family? I’d love it if you would share your tips in the comments!