Left to their own devices
Can you remember your first time? I was thirteen. My oldest son is eleven and has already done it. My wife did it when she was fourteen at a neighbour’s house. And she got paid for it.
I’m talking (of course) about being left in the house without adults around, either alone or looking after younger children.
The U.K. Express newspaper yesterday highlighted the case of a 41-year old mum who left her 14-year old son in charge of his 3-year old sibling for half an hour while she popped to the shops and ended up receiving a police caution for “cruelty”. She remains suspended from her job as a healthcare worker because the caution is on her record.
The subject was debated on Radio 2′s Jeremy Vine programme (listen here – available for next 7 days)
So when is it okay to leave your children alone? Let’s start with the law.
The law is vague. There’s no legal age limit for leaving a child on their own, but it’s an offence to do so if it places them at risk. Parents can be prosecuted for neglect if they leave a child unsupervised “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health”. This law was placed on the statute books in 1933.
Like I said, I was thirteen when, on a weekly basis I would be left alone on a Saturday night for two to three hours. There were ground rules. No opening the door to anyone. If there was a problem I knew there were neighbours on hand. Was I being put at risk? Was there cruelty afoot? Personally I thought it was rather cool but as a teen I would do. My mum knew I was sensible and wouldn’t have done it if she had thought I was apprehensive.
Her Up North earned pocket money babysitting for neighbours when she was fourteen. She was put in sole charge of youngsters while their parents went out. No one thought it weird and certainly not criminal. The neighbours knew her to be sensible (that word again), and didn’t have to lock the booze away.
In fact it’s only when we became parents ourselves that we questioned these seemingly normal events of the past.
Up until only last year, the thought of our boys on their own would not enter our heads. However, as with all facets of family life as your children get older, you have to reevaluate.
The Wunderkind started coming home from school by himself when he started year 6. The offsetting of school closing times meant he would be home while his mum was still out collecting his younger brother. What to do? He was adamant he didn’t want to walk home with mum and little bro. My god, he was eleven! So rather than let him wander the streets, we entrusted him with a key. On occasions since, he has been allowed to stay home – on his own, not looking after his brother – rather than be dragged out without need.
Once again, there are ground rules. No answering the door. No answering the phone unless it is his mobile. No going out and no letting any friends in. All these upon pain of death or, worse than that, confiscation of PS3 privileges.
We do this because we know the titian-haired one is (yes, you guessed it)… sensible. He knows we’re trusting him in a big way and he is happy with the situation.
Come on then, copper. Throw the book at me…
But wait. Before you take me down, let’s consider what is needed here.
The case of the unnamed mum emphasises the huge grey area which exists on this issue. Do we need a more prescriptive law? Or should parents be allowed to make decisions based on how well they know their own children?
There have been some terrible, high-profile cases of neglect – children left to fend for themselves while parents went on holiday, for example – but you have to suspect that no law in the land would have prohibited these idiots from making such selfish decisions. You can’t legislate for shit parenting.
From that realisation, it is not hard to see that tighter laws would chip away at the rights and weaken the responsibilities of those of us who try our damnedest to be good parents in a modern, busy world.
What is important is good guidance and to allow mums and dads to do their jobs, not the long arm of the law.
So what are your experiences of home alone childhood? Were you left to your own devices as a kid? What are your thoughts on leaving your own children alone? Has there been a societal change in attitudes?