Parents seem more comfortable than they were a decade ago to leave their children unsupervised during school holidays.Ten appears to be the magic age for children to become “latch-key kids” left unsupervised by parents before or after school.
But being left home alone in the school holidays is another matter, and more parents are waiting until their child turns 11 before they go unsupervised in the holidays. The statistics come as Victorian and NSW schools begin to wind down for the mid-year holidays.
The number of parents leaving their child unsupervised by an adult, or supervised by a sibling, during school terms and in the holidays increased over most age groups in the decade from 2002 to 2012, statistics from the largest national study of Australian households show.
The number of 14-year-olds left unsupervised during school holidays jumped from 37 to 53 per cent, according to the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia figures.
The percentage of children aged six to nine left alone on school holidays marginally increased, from 8.1 per cent to 9.4 per cent.
During the school term though, parents seem less keen than they were a decade ago to leave younger children unsupervised.
While many figures have increased over the decade, the percentage of six to nine-year-olds and 11-year-olds either coming home to an empty house or getting to school alone has decreased. Unsupervised six to nine-year-olds are down from 15 per cent to 13 per cent, and for 11-year-olds from 33 per cent to 28 per cent.
There was a slight increase in the number of 10-year-olds at home by themselves over the same period.
Dr Sarah Wise, from Melbourne University’s department of social work, said leaving children unsupervised was not new and the term ”latch-key kids” had a connotation of neglect that was not necessarily the case.
Most working parents struggled to match their children’s school holidays, Dr Wise said.
“I have primary school-age children and we ask what are we going to do every holidays,” Dr Wise said.
”There is no magic rule in terms of making these decisions,” she said.
”The best option is adult supervision but parents know their children and their family and neighbourhood situation best. They make these decisions based on maturity, how long their children are being left for and on sibling dynamics as well,” she said.
On the magic ages of 10 for being left unsupervised during the school term and 11 in the holidays, she said this coincided with a maturity leap at about that age when children began to show confidence in looking after their own safety and in following instructions.
”Children are willing and keen to show their competence. You wouldn’t leave a child who was frightened or nervous or doesn’t feel happy being left with a brother or sister they don’t get along with. Parents are responsible and really weigh up the decision,” she said.
Dr Wise suspected that the younger children were left with an older sibling rather than being left alone for long periods.
She said many school holiday programs did not operate at work-friendly times or were too costly for some parents.
The statistics show that from age 13, more often than not children are going it alone at some time during the school week. The number of 14-year-olds taking care of themselves during the school term has increased from 54 per cent to 61 per cent.
Dr Wise said the statistics seemed to show that when children were 14, parents were ”fairly confident that their children have a level of confidence to look after themselves”.
She said children were often savvy with digital technology and while parents might not be nearby, their children were very able to text or Skype to get in touch with their parents.
The figures do not show how long children are left for, nor the age of the sibling who might be left in charge.
The federal government-sponsored Raising Children Network website says there is no law that states when children can be left alone. Parents are legally obligated to ensure their children are properly cared for and cannot be placed in a dangerous situation.