4 simple ways to make sure your child is safe when they're home alone

When you do leave your child alone for the first time, make it for a short while and stay close to home

“Shoes back on, pal,” I told Aaron. After a long day of grade three, he was at one with the couch, but we had 20 minutes to get to his sister’s school.

“Go without me,” he said. I laughed. “You can’t stay home alone.”

“Why not?” Aaron argued. “I’ll be here with the phone beside me. I won’t move!” My eldest, Seth, was 11 when I armed him with instructions and dashed out for 10 minutes. At nine, Aaron was mature; but was leaving him alone safe?

Gauge the age  According to Tracey Warren, national director of injury prevention and education at Child Safe Canada, 10 is the minimum recommended age to leave a child alone. While no federal legislation addresses the issue, some provinces have their own home-alone laws, all within the 10- to 12-year-old range, while others leave the matter entirely to parents’ judgement.  

“The threshold is 10 because, developmentally, a younger child is not capable of handling an emergency situation,” Warren says. If something goes wrong — the lights go out, the doorbell rings, a fire starts — it’s easy to panic, she says. Becoming capable to handle an emergency, step by step, is a process that takes time as well as individual maturity. While one 10-year-old may be ready to stay home alone, another 12-year-old may not.

Teach the basics  Being responsible for yourself, and for an entire house, is a process that takes planning and practice, Warren says. Chat with your child about how she feels about staying home alone, and explain that you won’t leave until she feels comfortable and ready.

Start by teaching her to be attuned to everyday sounds in the home — the door opening, phone ringing, dog barking. Soon, she’ll be able to decipher strange or unexpected noises she needs to react to. Help her to be prepared by equipping every phone with a list of contacts she can turn to in an emergency.

Your child also needs to learn to lock and unlock doors, understand appliance safety, know basic first aid, practise fire drills, make 911 calls and respect house rules, such as which snacks are allowed and whether friends can drop by. “There’s a lot of information, so you layer on privileges and responsibilities in stages,” Warren says.
Take your time  When you do head out for the first time, make it for a short while and stay close, Warren says. You can increase the time and distance with your child’s age and maturity level. Start with a jaunt to pick up the mail, then to a neighbour’s for tea, followed by a longer stint at the gym or lunch. By the time you say goodbye for an evening out, your child should be up to handling the house alone.

But what if your child is old enough but still feels scared? Take short outings during the day — darkness boosts anxiety, Warren suggests. “Gradually, he’ll feel confident. I’ve never met a 17-year-old who balks at having the house to himself.”

Ready-to-go-solo quiz
Is your child up for the home-alone challenge? Have him take this test (from the Child Safe Canada program Home Alone Safety Plus First-aid).

When the doorbell rings unexpectedly, you should:
A Run and hide. It might be your auntie coming to give you a haircut.
B Look through the peephole, then open the door.
C Ignore it and keep playing computer games.
D Peep, but do not open
the door.
ANSWER: D

Which is the safe answer?
The phone rings when you are home alone.
You: Hello?
Caller: Is your mom home, please?
You: Sorry, she is…
A Out elephant riding for a few hours.
B Busy and can’t come
to the phone right now.
C Not home. Can I take
a message?
ANSWER: B