When children want to be home alone

Click to follow
THIS Christmas will be remembered in my household as the one when the dining-room was set on fire. In five minutes between clearing the remains of the pudding and returning from the kitchen, a candle display on the mantlepiece set the decorative holly and ivy ablaze, then spread up the chimney breast. It was a swift, salutary lesson on why you don't mess around with candles and why you blow them out the moment you vacate a room.

But mulling over the incident, which shook us, I realise how risk-free the average suburban home has become. With central heating radiators controlled by thermostats, microwaves, toasters, smoke alarms, a naked flame is a rarity: the worst accidents I know about seem to come from falling down stairs. Which brings me to the not unconnected issue grumbling away this week over the rights and wrongs of leaving children at home without adult supervision.

Clearly, leaving small children and babies unattended without food, drink and heat in squalid conditions for long periods, as in the cases which flared up over Christmas, is far from ideal. However hard- pressed the parents, if it happens systematically and is not just a by-product of stressed parents trying to muddle through an extraordinarily demanding pre-Christmas period, those children will be better off in loving foster homes.

But listening to the Radio 4 debate on the subject, I heard perfectly reasonable contributors echoing many of my own thoughts. In particular, a mother of a 12-year-old phoned in: her son refused to be minded while she was at work during the day, and managed perfectly well on his own. Just as the debate about single parents has largely collapsed in equivocation because the practice is so prevalent, so it seems to me that most people leave their children alone some of the time. I do it, and I suspect that many quite responsible parents recognise that the way we live now inevitably creates gaps in our childcare arrangements.

I can remember days when mothers who left their younger children at home while they took their oldest to school were whispered about in the playground as we waited for our charges to go in to school. But it is now almost a matter of pride for quite young children to beg to be left alone at home. Over the past few months, my 10-year- old has insisted that she stay alone in the house when I pick up her younger sister.

Looking around the home, with its safe-ish environment (no matches or candles), I have found it really hard to argue against her staying put. She has at hand computer games, videos, a television primed to swing into action for Neighbours, books and even occasionally homework to distract her. We may not like the fact that our children have become so sedentary, but since they are mostly denied the chance to move around freely in the outside world, they seem to regard it as a rite of initiation to be left alone at home enjoying, I suspect, the feeling of being in charge.

The practice of leaving children alone at home, I'm certain, accelerates and spreads during times of sickness, as with this winter's devastating flu. Most parents, required to take and pick up another child from school or shop for essentials when stocks run down, have to make decisions. Do they drag out the sick child, sneezing and coughing, or leave him or her snuggled up in bed or in front of the television? I've done both. In practice, once a child is about eight, it does not seem so terrible to leave them for half an hour or so, since they know you will be back. Of course, it would be much better if there was a grandmother around the corner or a friendly neighbour to stand in. But this is rare in modern society.

In my household, I'm accepting the children's desire to be left alone for perhaps an hour at a time by training them not to answer the door or the telephone - and I have always come home to a perfectly happy scene. But the serious point here is that as a society we provide little support and few breaks for parents. John Major's desire to go ahead with nursery education for all could turn out to be the single most beneficial piece, not just of educational, but of social engineering because of the way in which it would bring relief to stressed families. On the threshold of 1994, we must face up to the fact that patterns of parenting are changing faster than perhaps we acknowledge.