Leaving kids home alone

Read something in the US news about a mother leaving her teenage kids home alone. Now she’s facing legal action. And her oldest was 17.


I remember going off to Morocco with my husband – he was on duty travel – in 1988. For 8 or 9 days. The girls were just turned 13, and the older 16, four months short of 17. Yep, left them alone for 9 days.

We were living in Vienna (the one in Austria, that is.) The kids were at school, so could not come with us. We lived in a row of adjoining houses and the German/Finnish couple next door promised to keep a eye on things – but they weren’t actively involved in their care. For heaven’s sake, the girls could look after themselves. My husband’s secretary kept in touch with them as well.

And you know what? I wasn’t particularly worried about them and I don’t think we did anything particularly terrible.

My own mother at age 11, back in 1914, was cooking for the family, caring for a chronically sick mother, looking after her two sisters aged 10 and 4, and schooling as well.
Here’s what I wrote to her after we got back to Vienna: “Home again and all well that I can see. N managed to remove the skin from her upper lip and chin in a fall which does nothing for her looks, and they dropped a knife onto the element of the dishwasher where the handle melted, but no other disasters…”

Of course, Vienna was a safe city. People didn’t walk around taking pot-shots at school kids, and crime where we lived was rare. In our six years there I don’t remember that we were robbed once. (Wish I could say the same about Malaysia today.) Drugs were rare in the school environment. And there were so many friends – both theirs and ours – that the kids could turn to in a fix. In addition, European children tend to be an independent lot, used to fending for themselves and even travelling to other countries on their own.

Elder daughter and her girlfriend once went by train for a weekend to Venice. I think they were 16. They found their own accommodation and meals, and fended off amorous Italians all by themselves. That’s Europeans for you.

When the older daughter was off at Oxford, we left the younger one at home again, when we went to Albania for five or six days. She was 15.

I rang her from one of the two public telephones in the capital city of Tirana, just to check how she was. The year was I think 1990. And you had to use a real live telephonist in the hotel to connect you before you could speak…

Anyway, no sooner was daughter on the phone, and before I could get a word out, than she was desperately asking after OUR safety. Were we all right? There was a revolution in Tirana!
I said, ‘Huh? You sure you’ve got the right place?’ We hadn’t had any access to the news, although the Albanians did seem upset. Italy had just been defeated in the semi-finals of the World Cup Soccer, after all…
To which she replied with a scathing: ‘Muuu-uuum!’ You know the tone.
‘Oh,’ I said, the penny dropping, ‘So that’s what all those people we saw climbing over the embassy walls was about!” And that was why the Government Minister we’d had dinner with the night before had a decidedly harrassed look, especially when he was buttonholed by a Western reporter in the hotel lobby.

We were in the middle of a revolution and hadn’t even known it.


Leaving kids home alone — 6 Comments

  1. I find this a really scary post. In today’s age of paranoid parenting, where does government interference stop?

    I know of divorced fathers scared to hug their kids for the fear of being labelled sexually abusing.

    I know a mother who lost custody of a 3yo for a year because he fell off the swing and the parents couldn’t prove it wasn’t abuse.

    At what age would children be considered old enough to stay home by themselves? I know mine would – they are 11, 13 and 15 and if an emergency arose, I would no doubts about their ability to survive. They’d even do the shopping.

    However, the question is: would I leave them alone?

    In my case: only in an utter emergency.

    I don’t think it is fair for both parents to go on a holiday while they’re at school, and in our case, there would be no reason other than a holiday for us both the be away from home at the same time. I believe in solidarity as a family in good times and in bad. Term times are obviously bad times 😉

    But I do believe that every family should be allowed their own views and habits. What would you do if you were a single parent and had to travel for work? Government should keep their big noses out unless there is evidence of maltreatment.

    Geez, this scares me.

  2. I feel that sensible kids can only benefit from the experience, quite frankly – and become more aware of how much Mum does! However, as I said, it was a very safe place, there were neighbours – sharing a wall! – who were very supportive, and a load of back up.

    I guess a lot depends on the kids.

  3. I suppose that is true as well, and I do believe that every family has the right to their own arrangements. But these days, if you leave your kids at home, you have to be worried of the neighbours reporting you to DOCS. Sad, really.

  4. I don’t understand this as there are many kids out there who babysit for people and are certainly younger than 17. Or does the length of time make a difference do you suppose? A lot also depends on the area, as you said when you were in Vienna it was pretty crime free at the time.

  5. To tell the truth, I was really impressed with the maturity of European teenagers when we were living in Austria. And I wonder if it might not be because they are given more responsibility at a younger age.

    Vienna was a great place for kids to explore by themselves – everywhere accessible by bus/train/tram/u-bahn – and no mad traffic roaring around. I think my girls were very lucky to have spent a formative part of their life there.

    the funny thing about govt interference in the family is that so many kids who need intervention don’t get it. Instead you get stupidity. Here’s my daughter’s in-laws in US – mother a paediatrician, father stay at home dad. Has baby with fever. Gets prescription, goes to pharmacy. By the time he gets there, he has 2 kids sound asleep in car, so he leaves them there and goes in to get the medicine.

    Comes out and gets arrested for parental neglect. All of 5 minutes.

  6. There’s a theory going around that if you cotton-wool children at a young age from risk taking then when they are off the leash as teenagers the risk taking they employ is often fatal.
    The risk taking can be things like fast driving, drugs, alcohol etc.

    I believe that allowing children to engage in small and controlled risk-taking is a valuable learning experience that produces better balanced and mature teenagers.

    Allow children to experiment on swings (and occasionally fall off), ride a skateboard down a hill, play with other children, climb trees, make mud pies and have a fight with them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.