Home alone: How old is old enough?

Babble blogger Lizzie Heiselt left her seven-year-old son home alone while she ran errands—and kicked up a media firestorm.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Last summer, I needed to deliver a set of car keys to my husband who was fishing with friends at a spot only 10 minutes away from our home. My son, Isaac, who was seven years of age at the time, was absorbed in a book and protested loudly when I told him to get in the car for our short errand. In fact, he groused the whole way there and back.

The truth is, I would have happily left him home alone to read not because I would have preferred to avoid the noisy backseat complaints, but because I trusted him to behave while I went on a quick errand. That’s right: I would have left my seven-year-old son at home on his own.

Read more: When can kids stay home alone?>

You see, my son is the more responsible of my two children. He’s more likely to just quietly sit and read a book or sneak in some extra screen time than get into any actual mischief. He’s a rule follower, a worrier and trustworthy—which is why I wasn’t concerned about leaving him on his own for a short time. My husband didn’t see the situation the same way I did and was alarmed that I thought a seven-year-old was OK to be left alone.

I recount this story because earlier this week Babble blogger Lizzie Heiselt came under fire for doing exactly what I’d considered doing—leaving her seven-year-old son home alone while she ran errands around their New York City neighbourhood. After checking the laws (there are none in her state about the legal age at which a child can be left alone) and laying down the law to her son (no strangers, TV or video games), Heiselt left the house, completed her errands and returned home to find her son exactly how she left him.

Many readers were shocked by her choice and Heiselt found herself on national TV. She explained herself in a New York Times piece in their Motherlode section.

“Somehow, this was a big deal. A seven-year-old home alone for less than an hour was a ‘tragedy waiting to happen.’ Some people thought I was neglectful or lazy. Others thought it was simply ridiculous. Although I generally don’t read the comments, it was clear to me that I had unintentionally struck a chord that was sending reverberations throughout the parenting community as people from all over the place chimed in,” Heisselt writes.

Read more: 4 simple ways to make sure your child is safe when they’re home alone>

So, how young is too young?

According to the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, the Child and Family Services Act does not identify an age at which a child can be left alone. That being said, the Criminal Code of Canada considers it an offence to abandon a child—meaning parents could face up to two years in jail if a child under the age of 10 is left alone in a situation that could endanger or injure them.

But is leaving your under 10-year-old in the safety of your home abandonment? I’m not entirely convinced that it is, but I do know the older my son gets (he’s currently eight) the more I see him push for independence. While it may seem like I’m making a case for free-range parenting, I’m not. What I’m making a case for is giving children legitimate responsibility for themselves, in the safety of their own homes. If we can’t teach our kids that they’re safe at home, what does this tell them about the world around them?

Read more: 6 parenting rules (not) to live by>

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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