Would you allow your teenager to babysit your toddler?

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I was on my way to work in a school yesterday when I heard the debate on The Jeremy Vine BBC Radio 2 Show about a Mum who had been given an official police caution for leaving her 14-year-old son in charge of his three-year-old brother.

I rang in to leave my thoughts but I had to go off and teach my “Beat Bullying Confidence Classes for Kids” but it got me pondering:

At what age can children be left at home alone without parental supervision?

It’s a story that would sound alarm bells for many mums and dads.

Any parent who sometimes nips out to the shops, leaving their children to look after each other, will take certainly take note.

Or with the prospect of a rare night out, the couple that offers £20 to a sensible teenage neighbour in return for keeping an eye on their little ones, may now think again.

Here’s the article from BBC News

“A mother-of-three from the Thames Valley area has been cautioned by police after leaving her 14-year-old son at home with his little brother.

Sources quoted in the Sunday Times are reported as saying the mother, in her 40s, was away for 30 minutes, the time passed without “incident” and the toddler was never in any danger.

It’s very rare to hear about cases like this, but is 14 too young to be babysitting and might more parents find themselves facing a caution?

At the heart of this is what all parents of teenagers – and anyone who has ever been a teenager – knows, that one 14-year-old can differ dramatically from another in their maturity and reliability.

The law on this is vague but the police can – and do – use their discretion in judging these cases.

There is no minimum age at which children can be left on their own, nor does the law specify how old someone needs to be to babysit. However, if the babysitter is under 16, then the parent remains legally responsible for the child’s safety.

And, under the Children and Young Persons Act, parents can be prosecuted for wilful neglect if they leave a child unsupervised “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health”. Punishment ranges from a fine to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Without legally specified ages to guide them, parents may be left scratching their heads over this grey area.

But children’s charity, the NSPCC, advises that children under 13 should not be left at home alone for long periods and children under 16 should not be put in charge of younger children.

Chris Cloke, from the NSPCC, says calls to its Childline helpline showed that being left alone to look after young children can be distressing – one 10-year-old boy called to say he had no idea how to comfort his younger brother to stop him crying.

But Mr Cloke acknowledges the difficulties facing parents making the judgement call.

“What parents need to do is move their children on so they become more independent and of course it’s a question of striking the right balance.

“What’s really important is that parents talk through with their children, discuss the issues and if they are going to leave them at home alone make sure the child feels happy about that and feels confident and knows what to do and who to contact if there’s an emergency.”

‘Best judges’

Jacqui Gilliatt, a barrister at a family law firm, says there are difficulties with bringing in an age barrier as it would only ever be arbitrary and you will never eliminate the need for agencies or authorities to step in if something came to light.

She points out that parents do not have to accept a caution, which indicates an admission of guilt. Instead, she advises seeking legal advice and perhaps putting the case before a magistrate.

Justine Roberts, of Mumsnet website, also accepts there probably isn’t a right age.

“Some Mumsnetters report having children who will never be sufficiently competent to look after a sibling – even when fully grown – but others have 12-year-olds who are hugely responsible.”

Many mothers on Mumsnet mention their own experiences of babysitting, often for money, from the age of 12 and in some cases younger.

One highlights how attitudes are different in Germany and Switzerland where children commonly walk to school alone from the age of six. The mother also says she leaves her eight-year-old and six-year-old children at home when she goes shopping.

Another says the police caution is ridiculous and asks whether a 15-year-old mother can’t look after her own child unsupervised?

Ms Roberts adds: “Ultimately the parents are the best judges, as they know both the caring child and one being cared for – and what their limits are.”

Child development specialist and author of Toxic Childhood Sue Palmer argues that parents, as well as too much legislation in the UK, are part of the problem.

“Children are becoming less competent because they are being treated like carefully protected pets.

“Unless you let them take on chores and take responsibility for their own behaviour and learn to deal with real time, space and people, you won’t be able to leave them in charge of another child.”

But she also says such state interference, including the recent threat of more criminal record checks for people working with children, means people are ceasing to use common sense and losing their own ability to judge other human beings.

“We are almost legislating ourselves into a world built on accountability procedures and bureaucracy and statistics, and that’s a very unpleasant world.”

And this is, she says, fast making the UK a laughing stock among its European neighbours, where a 14-year-old in charge of a three-year-old is considered normal behaviour.”

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About the author

Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the  famous black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.

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