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When thinking of how unsafe it could be to leave children alone in the house, whether for a short or long period, the story of how Mrs. Maryam Ameen, 38, and her husband, 53-year-old Raheem, lost their three children to a fire incident in one fell swoop comes to mind.

The awful incident happened in August 2015 at Oke Afa, Isolo in Lagos.

Maryam had innocently left the three children – Christiana, 12; Feranmi, 8; and Pelumi, 6, in her salon and went home around 11pm after plaiting her last customer’s hair, thinking it was too late to move around with three children, especially when it wasn’t certain they would even get a bus home. She had to go home to cook against the following morning.

But leaving them behind that night was her undoing, even though that was not the first time they were sleeping there, either with her or alone. And the fact that the shop had an inner room made it an option to consider at such times.

She left them in a happy mood and they were even happy to be alone because they were seeing a movie on the television that they didn’t want to leave. But before the next morning, there was a fire accident and it burnt the three of them beyond recognition.

In fact, by the time people, including our correspondent, got to the scene the following morning, the toe of one of them was all that was left behind.

The cause of the fire and the fact that she left the key with them made no difference, because they were caught unawares. It was later found out that a bus carrying kegs of petrol rammed into a stationary bus in front of the shop which ignited the fire that eventually wrecked eight shops, destroyed properties worth millions of naira, and of course, took the lives of the three girls.

The trauma and deep confusion of the parents, especially the woman, even till date – two years after – can only be imagined.

While some would blame Maryam for leaving the children alone overnight, a widow, Mrs. Ngozi Nzediba equally lost her three children to fire incident three days after Christmas in 2016.

While her children were cooking noodles in their one-room apartment, she briefly stepped out of the house to buy something down the street in Ikotun Egbe area of Lagos. She, however, locked the door to make sure they didn’t leave the house and for any stranger not to come in.

But before she returned, fire had engulfed the apartment and burnt them all. They all died the following day due to the severe burns.

And these are just two of many of such incidents where innocent children have died due to avoidable circumstances.

Notably, raising a child can be a tough job. For most parents, it is one of the most difficult tasks on earth, for the obvious reasons, especially for those who pay attention to early childhood development.

Abigail Van Buren, an American columnist known for her famous quotes, once said, “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.”

But as much as parents are desirous of spending time with their children, work demands, absence of help, among other reasons compel parents to leave their children at home alone, usually for a short time.

Given the incidence of avoidable calamities that befall children that are left alone, largely because they are helpless and vulnerable, it has become necessary to know what age children should be before they are left alone in the house.

In a layman’s language, a child is someone who has yet to reach puberty, but the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a human being below 18 years, and this has been ratified by 192 out of the 194 countries in the world, Nigeria inclusive. This is said to be the most ratified human rights agreement in the world.

In addition and more importantly, the Convention states that being the most vulnerable, children should (always) be accorded special care and protection.

But according to some experts, to say every child below 18 years is a child might be a blanket definition. Thus, there are other classifications, in which case children are regarded as being from zero to 10 years, under-five inclusive. Adolescence is between 10 to 20 years, while 20 to 24 is regarded as young adult, and 25 and above is regarded as adult.

So, in all of these, at what age is it safe to leave children alone at home?

A developmental and clinical psychologist, Prof. Esther Akinsola, said it is not safe to leave children below teenage years (from 13) alone in the house, adding that even if such children would be left alone, it has to be “very” temporary, it shouldn’t be overnight and should not be just one child. “There has to be at least two of them and they should be given instructions as to what not to do,” she added.

Akinsola stressed that when children are left alone, they explore those things their parents had always told them not to do, thus, if the parents want to travel, there should be an elderly person, like an adult, to look after them.

She added, “Also, safety and communication gadgets have to be put in place before you leave such children alone and it has to be for a short time.

“Even at 18, in this culture, you need to get an elderly person to look after the children. The bottom line is that when parents are not around, children try new things, and that is the essence of parenting – to guide them.”

She emphasised the need for parents to guide their children properly from an early age.

Also, a clinical and health psychologist, Dr. Ehon Anthony, said, in his view, no child should be left alone in the house, but if more than one, the eldest must not be below 12. He, however, cautioned that not every 12-year-old is capable of being left alone in the house.

He noted that apart from the age of the child, there are other factors parents should consider.

He explained, “Parents’ experience, lifestyle, knowledge and style of raising children differ, hence, some children are wiser and some are more independent than others of their age. Some could have learning disorder (dyslexia), therefore, age cannot be the only yardstick.

“But ideally, a 12-year-old, who would likely be in JSS2 or JSS3, should be capable. If a child, at 12, can understand his or her environment, if the child can interpret stimulus in the environment, if the child is able to speak boldly, then, there is a positive signal.

“However, some children may be old enough but the environment may not be safe enough for them to be alone, given issues of criminality, insecurity, lack of trust in neighbours, hostility of the environment, etc., so, there are factors to consider.”

Anthony also advised parents who want to leave their children alone to give them assignments so they wouldn’t be idle.

He added, “In this era of telephone, parents should leave a phone with them so they could communicate with them every 20 minutes and monitor what is happening. Regardless, I will advise parents not to leave their children alone if there is no older sibling, like a young adult, with them. Alternatively, they could take the children along or either of the parents should stay with them.”

Meanwhile, a security expert, Mr. Pedro Ayandokun, said children below 12 should never be left alone in the house, noting that even at 12, whether such children could be left alone for a short time still depends on how well the parents have groomed the children. “So, 12 to 16 is the first category, but under-12 is not ideal,” he added.

Reeling out the safety tips parents should bear in mind, he said for people who have gas cooker at home, the cylinder is better kept outside, and that regardless, it must be turned off. He emphasised that electronic appliances, like iron, specifically, should be kept out of the reach of children.

He added, “Even when the television is on, the parental guidance should be on and certain instructions must be handed to them on where not to go and what not to do. Give them assignments so as to keep them busy. Don’t leave them if you would be away for a long time, because they might feel hungry and want to go to the kitchen to look for what to eat. In that process, accidents can happen.

“If you lock them inside, you must make sure that you have a spare key with them and with yourself and there must be a telephone so you could communicate. You could call them at intervals, and let them know you are on your way; that would put them in check.

“If you are not the careless type of parent, you must be able to caution and train your children so that when they are left alone, your mind can be at rest.”

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