Home alone

When is it safe to leave your child unsupervised at home? Parents and an expert weigh in on this controversial topic.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

When is it safe to leave your child unsupervised at home? Parents and an expert weigh in on this controversial topic.

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Nur Syahamah Syahrom’s grandmother had left her house for 15 minutes before tragedy struck last year.

The three-year-old, who was sound asleep when her grandmother exited her HDB flat in Sengkang, had somehow managed to make her way to the balcony ledge, which had no protective window grilles installed, and plummeted four storeys to the bottom of her block.

While the little girl survived her fall, the injuries she sustained left her in a weakened state and she died of pneumonia less than a month later.

To be clear, this was not an isolated incidence. Many similar stories have been relayed to the media over the years, with most involving a kid left at home alone.

It leads us to this question: At what age is it appropriate for children to be left unsupervised?

Each kid is different Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, says: “It is difficult to define a specific age, as children vary in their development and maturity.”

While he would not leave any child under the age of 10 alone – ever – he also feels that if the kid is older than 10, it becomes “controversial”.

“As each child is different, it will be best for parents to understand their child’s temperament, maturity level and his or her propensity towards being impulsive, to determine if their child can be safely left alone at home,” he says.

No parent would willingly want to leave their child unsupervised for any length of time but, unfortunately, work and other commitments make this area a tricky one for adults to navigate.

While the act of leaving your child home alone is not a crime, Dr Lim adds that there are some tips parents should keep in mind.

“Firstly, never take safety for granted. Look into features such as locking the window grilles,” he emphasises. He adds that parents should also make sure that they are contactable so that the child can reach them immediately if he becomes frightened or has any needs.

“Having a good relationship with your neighbours will be important, as they can sometimes keep a lookout for you, and the child can also approach them should any emergency arise.”

Elynn Liew, a mother of two, weighs in on the debate: “I only started to leave both my kids at home by themselves when my eldest son turned 10 years old. My daughter was aged seven-plus then. Prior to that, I left my daughter alone at home once when she was around six.”

She stresses that it’s important that parents and caregivers do not leave children at home alone while the kids are asleep, and that proper training is given to them so they know how to behave in such situations.

Madam Leong, a mum of two boys aged nine and 12 who declined to give her full name, says her the decision depends on the amount of time she’ll be gone.

“For a two-minute trot down the road to the shops, not crossing any roads or getting into a car [so there’s relatively little risk of being held up by an accident], I’d do it if mine were five or six years old,” she confides. “Basically, it’s the age where you can be sure they won’t run after you.”

She adds that if she were to be gone longer, she would make sure her kids could be trusted not to play with the stove, know how to get out of the house in case of emergencies, and know how to alert the neighbours.

“In my case, with both my children, that has meant when they’re around seven or eight years old,” she says.

On the other end of the spectrum is Khadijah Mokri, a mum of three boys aged six, four and three. She warns that parents leave their children unattended at their own risk, and says she would find it hard to even exit a room knowing that another adult wasn’t present to look after them.

Many parents are similarly anxious when it comes to leaving their children at home alone. They often worry about how their child will cope with the situation. But there are precautions they can take to ease their worries and help protect their kids when they’re not around.

Here are some factors to take into consideration if you decide to leave your children unsupervised at home:

Stay in touch Call your kids throughout the day to ask how they are and what they are doing. Ask them to check in before they leave the house and to call again when they return.

Keep kids connected Post important numbers by the telephone, including your work and mobile phone numbers, the doctor’s clinic, and a neighbour or nearby relative who can help quickly if they need it. Then get them to practise what to do in an emergency. Teach them how to dial “999” and when to do it Ask questions like “If someone is trying to get into the house, what should you do?”, “If you get hurt, what should you do?” and “If you want to play at a friend’s house, what should you do?”

Set firm rules Make it clear what your children are allowed to do and what they aren’t. Can they use the Internet when home alone? Can they invite a friend over? Can they invite several friends over? When handled well, letting your child go solo in the house doesn’t have to be a harrowing experience. In fact, some parents say the act of being home alone can teach a child how to be independent, which could position them for success later on in life.