As the return to school looms, you may be wondering if your 10-year-old is old enough to stay home alone between the time he gets off the school bus and when you arrive home from work 45 minutes later.
Being at home alone is a big responsibility and one that needs to be carefully considered. Kids need to be in charge of a key, be able to let themselves in, know what to do in an emergency, deal with calls or knocks on the door, and abide by household rules even though no one’s watching. For parents, the challenge is to provide supervision without being there.
First, is it legal to leave kids this age unsupervised? Valerie Powell, who is communications and media program coordinator with the Canada Safety Council (CSC) says her organization recommends kids be at least 10, but provincial laws vary between 10 and 12. “Parents really need to make this decision based on a child’s maturity level,” says Powell. “Both the parent and the child has to feel confident about the arrangement.”
The CSC says that kids this age really shouldn’t be on their own for longer than an hour, and should not be left alone where there isn’t an adult nearby who can be there to help within a few minutes.
Trial runs are a must, says Powell, and kids should know the safety rules. “We recommend starting off with just a few minutes — and having some way of being in touch like a cellphone,” says Powell. Gradually increase the time you’re away. Before you go, talk about what she’ll do while you’re away. When you return, ask her whether she felt safe and comfortable on her own.
What will your child do until you get home? A check-in phone call with you and a snack waiting in the fridge will help kids settle in. Some kids will be OK about getting started on their homework; others may want to unwind a bit by watching TV. Having a friend over is something that should be discussed in advance with the other parent.
What about supervising younger siblings? According to Powell, a 10- or 11-year-old should not be in charge of kids under six. If they are going to be supervising a sibling, it’s a good idea for them to have taken a babysitting course in advance.
What are the signs of readiness?
Home-alone kids should be able to:
• follow instructions
• abide by household rules (even when no one’s watching)
• read and understand a written message
• give directions to their house
• understand emergency procedures like how and when to call 911 and to leave the house if they smell smoke
• feel confident about being able to manage on their own
• feel safe at home alone
What are the safety rules you should discuss?
Phone calls and doorbells Powell recommends that kids not answer the door or the phone when they’re home alone, unless you’ve made some prior arrangement for a friend or relative to pick up your child. Call display will allow your child to see who’s calling.
Backup plans Kids should know where a key is hidden in case they’ve lost theirs, where to go in the neighbourhood if they need help, and who to call if there’s a problem and you can’t be reached.
Home safety checklist
• Have a well-stocked first aid-kit in the house and show your child where it is and how to use it.
• Secure dangerous items (lighters and matches, firearms and ammunition, alcoholic beverages, toxic cleaners) under lock and key.
• Make sure smoke alarms are installed on every floor of your home and the batteries are working.
• Plan for power outages. Make sure your house has a battery-operated clock and that your child knows where the flashlights are.
• Consider programmable light timers so your child isn’t coming home to a dark house.
• Have call display and an answering machine so your child can answer calls only from specific people. The CSC also recommends installing a wireless home-monitoring system that will let you know when your child arrives at home by sending an alert to your cellphone.