Should a teenager be left to babysit a toddler?

By Marie Jackson
BBC News

image captionYoung people need to learn to take responsibility for others, one childcare expert says

A mother has been given an official police caution for leaving her 14-year-old son in charge of his three-year-old brother. So at what age can children be left at home alone without parental supervision?

It's a story that would sound alarm bells for many mothers and fathers.

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

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 in the UK can be left on their own, nor do laws 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 in England and Wales 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. Similar legislation is in force in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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.

image captionParents are the best judge, say many people

"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."

Jacqui Gilliatt, a family law barrister, 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.