The Politics of Home Alone

When is it okay to leave a child unattended? This surprisingly simple question has some complex answers that change with the decades.

PAUL DETTMANN

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We were never left unattended at home in the 1980s and 1990s. Not for a minute. But we had a lot more freedom than a 2020s child has. There was no way to track our movements, so we would roam freely around our neighbourhood after school until the evening meal, and afterwards in summer until bedtime, and all day on a Saturday. Nobody knew where we were, but we always played in groups of at least two or three kids. We learned how to spot danger, although we never really spotted any. We certainly had watches and we knew we would be for it if we were more than ten minutes late. Fear of our parents made us stick to the deadlines we were given, not fear of strangers. We walked to school without our parents quite early on, and from age 11, we rode our bikes a couple of miles to school unattended, and part of the route was across a busy dual carriageway. Nobody came to harm. Was it just luck?

I was never left alone overnight until the age of 18, when the rest of my family went on holiday without me. I had experienced my first parent-free holiday in Majorca that year, also my first ever time on a plane if you can believe that, and I felt I was too grown up to bother with a family trip. Of course, I was bored from the first minute their car left the drive and regretted that decision many times during the week they were away. But I have friends who were left alone at a younger age, in the middle teens, as arrangements meant they were surplus to requirements when various step-parents wanted quiet time without other peoples’ kids in a nice climate. But nobody came to harm.

There were people in the 1980s who did not have a telephone. A very common way to ask someone for their phone number was to say: “Are you on the phone?” A surprising number of people would reply no. We knew of relatives in small villages who never locked their doors. In the suburbs of our major city, nobody was quite that foolish. We had power cuts quite regularly, and kept a drawer full of candles. It might sound like the dark ages to you, but it really wasn’t. Apart from a few missing techno gadgets, life was just the same then as it is now. Which makes me rethink my attitude to the 1950s and 1960s, which were even more halcyon times, we were led to believe, when crime rates were at zero and everyone loved their…

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PAUL DETTMANN

All the news from my work as a true crime researcher. We’re building a true crime community one person at a time. UK-based.