As December approaches, I am faced with my annual Herculean task of enthusing my other half about the festive season. It is the time of year it becomes most apparent that we are totally and completely incompatible. While I run around covering everything with tinsel, blaring out Nat King Cole day and night and scheduling in a visit to every vaguely Christmas-themed event from the moment I open the first door of my advent calendar, my husband all but sits in a corner mumbling ‘Bah Humbug’. He leaves all his shopping until Christmas Eve and then moans that the true tragedy of the demise of the high street is that you can no longer just run and buy everything in Woolworths.
Luckily, I have a secret weapon: Macaulay Culkin. For some unfathomable reason, even my husband’s Grinch-like demeanour is thawed the moment Home Alone appears on the TV and renders him, momentarily, susceptible to the festive jollities. I’d like to think it’s because of the heart-warming message about the importance of family, love and not judging by appearances. In reality, it’s probably far more to do with Joe Pesci being whacked repeatedly in the face with large metal objects.
Whatever your feelings about Christmas, or Macaulay Culkin, there’s no doubting that Home Alone a great family film, albeit riddled with plot holes and unresolved issues. Top of the list: where the hell are social services? If they don’t see fit to intervene in this hapless and disorganised family’s clear neglect when they leave their 8 year old home alone at Christmas (even when they call the police to tell them they’ve done it!) surely alarm bells should start ringing by the sequel?
Taking a far stricter stance than the movie makers on parental responsibilities, this week a YouGov poll found that two thirds of parents think that the government should set a clear minimum age at which parents can legally leave their children home alone. It was generally agreed that 12 was a sensible age for this limit.
Telling people how to parent their children is always going to be controversial. There are so many mitigating factors, so many issues to be taken into consideration.
What if your 11 year old is especially mature and sensible? What if your 13 year old is reckless and you wouldn’t trust them alone for a minute? What if you have younger children whose primary school is in one direction, but the elder’s high school is in the other? Surely at the age of 11 they are old enough and sensible enough to let themselves in and out of the house and grab themselves a biscuit until you can get home safely with the ones who really need looking after? What if you’re a lone, working parent to several children and just can’t watch all of them all the time? If it’s ok for 10 minutes, does that mean it’s ok for 1 hour or 3? Does it make a difference if it’s an hour on a Tuesday afternoon in the summer holidays versus an hour on a Friday night in winter? Considering all the factors as well as age, where do we draw the boundaries?
In reality, the vast majority of parents can be trusted to make sensible decisions about their own children. Many of them are probably panicking and stressing so much about little decisions there’s no way they’d ever put their child in danger. I live on the second floor of a flat block with no lift and when my boy was a tiny baby I would drive myself to distraction wondering if it was ok to run down and put the rubbish out while he was asleep, or go to set the buggy up outside while he was strapped into the base in the kitchen rather than attempting to carry both downstairs. I would spend a good ten minutes rearranging everything in the room in case there was an unexpected earthquake which shook everything within a 2 foot radius so it all inexplicably jumped off the shelves and directly on top of the boy. Even when I had done this, I would spend the entire time I had left him (a total of about one minute) preparing my defence in case a health visitor turned up unexpectedly and threatened to take him away as a result of my neglect.
This insane panic is probably a feature of much parenting and, though often ridiculous, ensures most people make reasoned and very safe judgements when it comes to their children.
Still, there are instances where people do make potentially unsafe judgements, and guidance is needed. But is potential criminalisation the answer?
If parents really are making decisions which put their children in danger, then surely safeguarding procedures would immediately be put in place the moment those dangerous actions were discovered. It would concern me that by adding an extra layer of prosecution into this mix you are simply complicating the problem, potentially alienating the parents further from a system which should be helping them, or adding work to a system which is already extremely busy dealing with children at risk.
Where decisions to leave under 12s may be seen not to be enough of a risk to warrant ongoing child protection intervention, where then is the benefit in putting a parent through the justice system? You would almost certainly teach that parent a lesson and they are unlikely to do it again – assuming they had a choice in the first place – but at what cost? Both to that family and the justice system?
There is already clear, simple guidance from the government and NSPCC on when it is appropriate to leave children at home. If some parents feel this needs to be made law, perhaps they were unaware of the guidance to start with. If parents don’t want to leave young children at home but feel they have no choice, perhaps they need more support and the money which would be spent on passing and enforcing a change in the law would be better spent on helping those who are struggling, or subsidising childcare to support working parents.
Surely, as is most often the case in society, education and support is a far better option than arbitrary criminalisation.