How to tell if your child is ready
Originally published on TodaysParent.com March 15, 2006
☐ It’s against the law to leave a child home alone until he is 11 years old.
☐ You cannot leave a child to look after a younger sibling until he is 12, unless he has a babysitting licence.
☐ You will be charged with abandonment or neglect if you leave your seven-year-old unattended in a car.
Despite what all the parents in my neighbourhood would insist, all three statements are false. “The law is purposefully vague when it comes to choosing a specific age [for leaving children on their own] because there are many variables to take into consideration,” says Dave Fleming, assistant director of intake at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (see What the Law Says).
So how is a responsible parent to know what to do? Can you run to the store alone to get that bag of milk or should you take all three kids with you every time? Is it OK to leave your toddler in the car while you dash to the ATM or should you wait to have a helper at home before you do that errand?
The best guide is your common sense. Obviously, what’s appropriate for a 12-year-old is just plain nuts for a two-year-old. But when it comes to children in between, you’ve got to listen to your gut. “One 11-year-old may feel comfortable being left alone, and know what to do in case of an emergency, while another 11-year-old may feel nervous and unsure of himself,” points out Fleming. “Observant parents know their children and anticipate changes in development and abilities.”
Knowing your children’s natures becomes doubly important when you leave an older sibling in charge of a younger one. For example, if your toddler is climbing up the bookcases, it wouldn’t be wise to leave him for the entire evening with an older brother who tends to zone out when he’s watching TV. But a more placid three-year-old might be OK for an hour with the big brother who enjoys reading to him or lining up little toy cars in endless rows.
Renée-Ann Hay, a mother of three kids in Aurora, Ont., knows exactly what Fleming means. “I have twin girls, now 12, and a six-year-old son. Even though the girls are the same age, they have different personalities and different levels of maturity. I feel comfortable leaving one of the twins in charge of my younger son, but not the other. She’s just not ready yet, but together, it’s OK.”
How long you should leave a child, and at what time of day, is also a matter of common sense. Your eight-year-old might be fine alone for 10 minutes in the afternoon while you dash to the mailbox, but freak out if left for an hour on her own.
While no hard and fast age guidelines exist, the child welfare experts Today’s Parent spoke to suggest you might consider leaving a mature eight- or nine-year-old for a few minutes at a time, during daylight hours only, while you get milk from the corner store. A 10- or 11-year-old might be all right coming home from school on her own, and spending an hour or so alone, as long as she knows how to reach you in an emergency. Most kids 12 and up can be left on their own for a few hours in the evening, and may be put in charge of supervising younger ones, as long as they are mature and knowledgeable about safety and child care. (For more age-specific suggestions, see Age-by-age guidelines.)
If you think your children are ready to go it alone, gradually introduce the idea. Find out if they really feel OK about it. If they say they’re not ready or that they’re uncomfortable, trust them. You can gradually work on building their skills and confidence. If, on the other hand, they are keen for some independence, the next step is to prepare your kids for their new roles. Leave them alone for five minutes while you walk around the block, then 10 for a quick trip to the dry cleaners.
At the same time, create and discuss a safety plan so that your kids are prepared to respond to different situations when home alone. They should know how to dial 911 and what to do in case of a fire. Give your kids specific rules about what to do if someone phones (tell them that their parents are “unavailable,” never that they are not home) or comes to the door (don’t answer it). They may be forbidden to use the stove in your absence or to play certain rougher games.
Don’t always count on your lessons to stick the first time. Despite a dozen repetitions of “leave the house immediately if there is a fire,” when my husband and I quizzed our kids (then nine and 11), they both insisted they’d have to run down to the basement to save the goldfish.
Once kids know the rules, make sure they buy into them. If they can’t agree to your basic guidelines, such as no TV till homework is done, they are not ready to be left on their own. Hay adds, “And if they cannot be trusted not to fight or argue amongst themselves while you are gone, think twice. Even smart and responsible kids can do foolish things when they are in the heat of an argument.”
Before you leave for the first time, “Explain to the child where you are going, and specify how long you’ll be gone,” says Fleming. And it’s also a good idea to let trusted neighbours know you will be gone so they can keep an eye out in your absence.
Always leave a phone number where you can be reached while you’re gone. Remember to check in frequently. With luck, your kids will enjoy their new-found independence so you can enjoy yours.
Children’s Aid Society of Peel Region has a checklist you can use to determine if you can safely leave your child on her own:
Kidproof Canada offers two-hour courses for children aged 10 to 12 that teach safety skills for time spent home alone. Some courses also include basic first aid. Find course information at kidproofcanada.com.
The Regional Municipality of Halton (Ont.) offers a free presentation and information kit called At Home Alone: A Guide for Children Ages 10 to 14 and Their Parents. Call (905) 825-6000 or 1-866-442-5866.
The Canada Safety Council produces a booklet called At Home on My Own: safety-council.org/info/child/alone.html.
What the Law Says
Each province and territory has its own statutes that deal with child protection, which give social workers the authority to make decisions on the care of children. In Ontario, for example, the legislation is known as The Child and Family Services Act, and it has two clauses relevant to this discussion:
Sec. 79 (3) “No person having charge of a child less than 16 years of age shall leave the child without making provision for his or her supervision and care that is reasonable in the circumstances.”
Sec. 79 (4) “Where a person is charged with contravening subsection (3) and the child is less than ten years of age, the onus of establishing that the person made provision for the child’s supervision and care that was reasonable in the circumstances rests with the person.”
In plain English, you, as a parent, are responsible for your children’s safety and well-being until they are 16 years old, and you are obligated by law to provide adequate supervision and care.
If this seems pretty straightforward to you, it’s not. The phrases “supervision and care” and “reasonable in the circumstances” aren’t defined precisely anywhere in the Ontario act, and the legislation elsewhere is at least as vague (incidentally, Manitoba is the only other province or territory that mentions age at all, where 12 is substituted for 10 in the second part.)
For most of us, the word supervision conveys the image of an on-site caregiver. But what about indirect supervision, such as by telephone? What about a next-door neighbor who is available in an emergency? Both can be considered reasonable supervision under the right circumstances.
Who decides what is “reasonable under the circumstances”? According to the act, you. But you’d better be right. If something goes wrong and police deem that children should not have been left alone, a parent can be charged with abandonment under the Criminal Code, which is federal legislation. (This is extremely rare — most families will be given the opportunity to work with their child welfare agency to come up with a plan for better supervision).
So how would Children’s Aid determine if a parent’s actions are “reasonable”? Social workers will look for an ongoing pattern of neglect, as well as other obvious signs of neglect: a dirty or chaotic home environment or signs that a child is being given regular duties inappropriate to her age, for example, a preteen who is responsible for cooking dinner and putting two toddlers to bed every night.
Obviously, the best way to avoid even the possibility of a problem is to keep kids under 10 — 12 in Manitoba — under direct supervision at all times. But, unfortunately, that’s not always practical or possible given some families’ circumstances. A recent study in the US found that 14 percent of children aged five to 12 were left alone at home for an hour or more a day, usually after school. The numbers are probably similar in Canada. That translates into nearly half a million Canadian kids who are currently on their own for at least part of the day.
Going Solo: The checklist
Click here for a printable PDF version of this checklist.
1. Emergency numbers
Post these numbers by the phone or on the fridge:
☐ fire department*
☐ police department*
☐ poison control hotline
☐ veterinary emergency hotline (if there are pets in the house)
☐ family doctors
☐ trusted neighbours and other family members, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles
☐ your own address and phone number (your kids will need to give this information to a 911 operator in an emergency, and they wouldn’t be the first to get flustered and forget)
*911 may take care of all three.
Teach your children which nearby person you would like them to call first if the situation is not an emergency (in which case they must call 911) and they can’t reach you.
2. Your information
☐ address and telephone number where you are going to be
☐ your cellphone number and/or pager number
☐ time you expect to get to your destination and when you expect to leave
☐ if you are going to more than one place, approximate time you plan to change locations (if attending a play or concert, the row and seat numbers of your tickets, to help theatre staff locate you quickly in an emergency)
☐ time you expect to return
☐ Are you expecting any phone calls or visitors? If so, who? Tell your children how you expect the phone to be answered and remind them not to answer the door for unexpected visitors.
3. Information about the child
Leave information about your child for emergency workers in the unlikely event that they may need to be called to your home. Include
☐ list of any allergies
☐ name and number of family doctor
☐ pertinent medical information, such as current medications, recent illnesses and chronic conditions
4. Information about the house
☐ Locks and extra keys. Make sure children know where they are and how they work. Also show them how all of the windows work and which ones are locked or painted shut. If you’ll be setting an alarm, make sure your child is experienced at disarming it.
☐ Emergency supplies. Point out flashlights, candles, matches, first-aid and cleaning supplies.
☐ Appliances. Make sure they know how to work the can opener, stove, oven, microwave, high chair and infant swing. If necessary, show them how to adjust the heat or air conditioning.
☐ Pets. Will pets need to be fed or given water? When, what and how much?
☐ Fire safety procedures. Does the family have a plan in place? If not, create one. Make sure the kids all know exactly what to do.
☐ Keys Ensure your kids know what to do if they are locked out of the house. Does a neighbour have an extra key?
5. If your older child is looking after a sibling
Make sure your older child has all of this information in writing:
☐ Meals and menus. What time is mealtime? What should the child eat? Are there any food allergies or restrictions? What about snacks?
☐ Medications. Write down the name of all medications, their locations, correct dosages, time they should be given and if food or a drink should be avoided or given with the medicine.
☐ Can the sibling go outside to play? Are any playmates allowed into the yard or house? Can he go to a friend’s house? Which friend?
☐ Electronics rules. Can the child play on the computer? If yes, what programs can he play with and are there instructions for starting them? Can he watch TV? If yes, for how long, and what programs can he watch?
☐ Bedtime. When is bedtime and what is the usual bedtime routine?
While there are no firm legal guidelines for leaving children unattended, these suggestions — compiled from recommendations by child welfare experts — may help you determine the best practice for your family.
Preschoolers should always be supervised by an on-scene caregiver. They may be left for short periods of time with a responsible older sibling, minimum age 11 or 12. The sibling must be capable of changing diapers and feeding the child. The sibling must also be physically large enough to restrain and carry her charge as necessary. Never leave a preschooler alone in a car.
Primary school-age children should be supervised by an on-scene caregiver. An extremely mature and responsible eight- or nine-year-old, however, may occasionally be left for short periods during the day, for example, while you are running a brief errand in the neighbourhood, as long as provisions are made for their safety in your absence. Try to keep your outing to 20 minutes or less. Make sure the child can reach you at all times while you are gone (this is where a cell phone is key). If in doubt, take a primary school-age child with you. Most would prefer your company anyway. Do not leave a primary school-age child in charge of a younger child.
Kids in the junior grades are pressing for more independence, but still should be supervised directly most of the time. That said, they do need to start preparing for greater independence by gradually learning how to manage on their own. Ten-year-olds, if mature, can be left alone for about an hour or two in the daytime (i.e. after school). Do not leave them on their own at night. Make sure they are adequately prepared with emergency phone numbers, etc.
Twelve-year-olds may occasionally be left alone in the evening if they are given adequate instructions and can reach you at all times. Limit the amount of time a 12-year-old is left alone after midnight. Do not leave a child of this age overnight.
Ban risky activities that include fire, water or mess. For example, the stove and toaster should be out of bounds, as well as the wood-burning kit little Susie got for her birthday. The bathtub is a no-go, and so are crafty activities — you’d be hard pressed to decide which was worse, the gluey mess, or the clean-up attempt with the — oops — bleach. The best way to keep preteens out of trouble is to leave them washed, fed, in pajamas, and curled on the sofa with their favorite video. Check in by phone frequently.
A babysitting course for 11- and 12-year-olds will go a long way to easing your mind — and theirs. They are offered by schools and community centers across the country — check your local listings for detailed program information. An 11- or 12-year old with a babysitting certificate or equivalent experience may look after younger siblings. Do not allow 12-year-olds to babysit more than two other children or one infant. They are not yet mature enough to handle the conflicting demands.
Young teens may actually need more supervision, not less, than younger children. At this age, kids are more likely to begin experimenting with drugs, alcohol or sex. They are also becoming more rebellious, and may flout your rules. If your teen is coming home after school alone, check in regularly. As much as they may complain that you don’t trust them, many kids actually find your calls reassuring.