CASES OF children temporarily abandoned while their parents go to work or on holiday are being reported under the inevitable 'Home Alone' banner with increasing frequency. It would appear that Macaulay Culkin (or his errant screen parents) may have started something.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the past, leaving children to fend for themselves was as regular a part of child care as checking for nits.

During the Sixties, with the gradual arrival of women in the workplace, the media began its campaign against 'latchkey kids', poor mites who were forced to take care of themselves until mother (never father) returned from work. My own mother was so anxious to avoid the label that I was never given a key at all while I lived at home. Her ability to be there to open the door was a symbol of good motherhood.

This brings us to the feverish pitch of today's headlines about parents who have done a secret bunk. David and Sharon Schoo became America's most hated couple after absconding on a nine-day Christmas holiday to Acapulco and leaving their nine- and four-year-old daughters to fend for themselves. Clearly, the couple was wrong to leave two small girls without adult support. But were the hysterical judgements that descended on them more an indication of the modern mood than of their children's ability to cope?

Parents have never been under greater pressure to provide for their children's needs. Yet there is also pressure on them to earn, find fulfilment in the workplace and take distant and expensive holidays. While most parents abandon their own needs in favour of their children's, a few go the other way and, in extreme cases, abandon the child instead.

Current thinking on child neglect is summed up by the National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children, which lists the possible characteristics of the 'Home Alone' child: he or she may become withdrawn and miserable, unusually aggressive, dirty and underfed, and suffer lasting emotional problems.

'The care of the child is paramount,' Kevin Barrett, an NSPCC policy officer, says. 'It's always risky to leave children alone, even for a few minutes. It is out of the question to leave a five-year-old for five minutes because at that age a child cannot cope with all the possible dangers.

'Older children are clearly more mature and able to be left for short periods, but we must always protect children from potential and often unforeseen dangers.'

This 'crime' needs to be seen in perspective, however. The law is unclear on what age children are thought responsible enough to be left alone. This reflects a general recognition that youngsters mature at different rates, and defining the length of absence that would constitute abandonment is difficult. Training sessions involving case studies of children being left unaccompanied have left social workers divided.

'Some social workers thought you should remove the children instantly,' Mary Ryan, of the Family Rights Group, says. 'Faced with the same dilemma, others have said 'I was left at home by my parents at that age and I was fine', and proposed taking no action.'

There is no suggestion that a child benefits from being left in an empty house with only a television and teddy bears for company. Nevertheless, I know that my five-year-old is able to look after herself for short spells of time, that she will not get up to anything dangerous while I am away. Nor do I particularly fear that she will be whisked away by a stranger at the door, or inveigled into risky activities by an unknown caller on the telephone. Yet I never leave her alone, not even for a moment.

I have friends who 'pop out' while their babies are asleep, others who leave their six- and eight-year-olds while they nip round to the shops. But they confess their 10-minute crimes in hushed tones. They seem less frightened for their children than fearful of what the neighbours - and, ultimately, the social agencies - will think.

It may be risky to leave children alone at home for long periods if we have not accurately judged their ability to cope. But it is also risky to deprive them of the chance to learn to manage for short spells by themselves. There will always be a first time. Perhaps it is better to educate in small stages, rather than expect an 18-year-old suddenly to look after his or herself and the house. Otherwise we risk raising children in an atmosphere of fear and ending up with individuals devoid of self-reliance.