Is it okay to leave kids alone at home?
Posted by: Brigitte RozarioBy SHAMALA VELU
Leaving children alone at home can be unnerving. Many parents have had tumultuous experiences with maids and daycare centres. Hence, they feel the only other option is to leave their brood alone at home. Although Malaysia has a Child Act that protects children against neglect, some parents still take the chance of leaving their kids alone at home.
Two people share their views on this:
Photographer Diana (not her real name), mother to five children:
“The decision to leave my children alone at home was a very difficult one when we decided to do it a year ago. My husband and I work full-time and our Indonesian maid went home for a holiday and never returned. We did not have any backup plan. Our extended families don’t live nearby.
Looking back, I realise it takes a lot of discipline and courage to leave children home alone but we had no other alternative. I didn't want to leave them with a babysitter because it would be costly and resigning was out of the question since our household depends on two incomes. I wanted my children to be more independent and I believed this was a good way to teach them to be responsible.
We knew our eldest son, who was then 11, was very mature for his age. He is very independent and does not usually need adult supervision. We decided to see if things worked with him taking charge of his younger brothers. My boys are also not physical and don't get into big arguments. So, I knew it would work well.
Although I was very anxious in the beginning and kept calling back every 30 minutes to see how they were doing, things looked much better when they got into a routine.
We had to make things very clear to the younger boys that their eldest brother was in charge. My youngest child (the only daughter) was sent to the nursery nearby because she is very young. I also told the caregivers at the nursery to assist if my boys needed help. Knowing that there is help nearby has made it a lot easier for me. My neighbours are also working parents so there’s no one to turn to except the nursery.
I tell my boys that if they need help at any time, they can always call the nursery. The boys arrive home at around 1pm after school and the school bus driver is also very helpful. He makes sure that all of them are inside the house before he leaves. There are many spare house keys in the house just in case one goes missing.
I wake up very early in the morning to prepare lunch because I shut the gas cylinder after cooking. I cook simple dishes like fried rice or noodles and it is left on the table for them.
Rules are definitely important for my children. There is a list of rules the boys must follow and it includes not going out of the house at any time or opening the gate for anyone. They are not allowed to use the microwave, gas stove or any other electrical appliance in the kitchen. In fact, the children are not allowed to use the kitchen. Medicine, match boxes and other hazardous materials are locked away as well.
They are only allowed to use the phone to call me and no one is supposed to know they are home alone.
The boys usually shower after returning from school, then they have their lunch. Most of the time, they watch television or play computer games after that. Although I worry about what they are watching or playing, I trust my eldest son and he always keeps a watchful eye on their activities. They are off again to Agama (religious) class after lunch at about 2.30pm. Again, the bus driver takes them to class and brings them home before 4pm. My husband is at home by 5.30pm.
When I get home the house is always in a mess. Clothes are strewn on the floor and plates are left in the sink! I don't scold or expect them to do the dishes because they are already looking after themselves and trying to stay out of trouble.
There's a lot of work for me when I get home and one needs to be disciplined about time management.
Although I'm tired, I don't concede or take a break. It has worked thus far for my family. My boys, who used to be apprehensive about being alone, are also very confident now. I think it just takes a bit of adjustment and close supervision.”
Phenny Kakama, child protection specialist from Uganda, Unicef (United Nations Children's Fund) Malaysia:
“Leaving children alone at home without adult supervision can be dangerous to their wellbeing since children's behaviours, particularly younger children, put them at greater risk. They crawl on the floor, climb onto the window ledge, squeeze through stair balustrades, slide down the stair handrail, swing on the gate, run from room to room and ride bikes inside as well as outside the house. They make use of their homes in ways that may seem reasonable to them, but which could put them in harm's way.
We do understand that there are many circumstances and situations that leave parents and guardians with seemingly no other options but to leave a child alone at home. However, parents and guardians must explore other options that will minimise risks for children and which serve the best interests of the child. This is because parents and guardians will be held accountable for any harm that may befall a child if left alone at home.
Whatever the age, there are risks which parents and guardians should be aware of when a child is left alone at home. Some risks are not even age-dependent, for example, opening the doors indiscriminately to visitors or being exposed to adult content on television or the Internet.
Dangers and risks are variable and depend on the age of the child. For the younger children, there are greater risks of injury from play or handling electrical equipment, abduction as well as emotional deprivation from lack of care and concern.
For older children, there are risks that the child may interact with groups that may be a negative influence on him / her. The child can take advantage of the absence of adults or other children to experiment with alcohol, smoking, use of drugs and exposure to inappropriate content via television and the Internet. In addition, there are risks of rape and other forms of sexual violence for girls in particular irrespective of age, as well as boys.
Adult supervision is widely recognised as vital to protecting children from harm. Some estimates suggest that 90% of injuries to young children occur in and around their home, even when they are supposedly being supervised by a caregiver.
Malaysia's Child Act 2001 protects children from all forms of maltreatment including neglect.
The Child Act of 2001 states in Chapter 3, Section 33 on ill-treatment, neglect, abandonment or exposure of children that:
'Any person who, being a parent or a guardian or a person for the time being having the care of a child, leaves that child (a) without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child; (b) for a period which is unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances; or (c) under conditions which are unreasonable having regard to all the circumstances, commits an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding five thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both.'
To overcome these challenges that parents face, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that high-quality, low-cost or free daycare and after-school care are put in place to protect the needs of children. While the Government is primarily responsible for meeting this need, other stakeholders such as employers should also be involved in providing alternative forms of childcare for working parents.
In fact, the Committee on the Rights of the Child urges governments to consider developing comprehensive measures to encourage responsible parenthood and to assist needy families with their child-rearing responsibilities. These measures could be in the form of ensuring child-care services and facilities are prepared for working parents or by offering social assistance to families.”