Every day after school, 12-year-old Elizabeth Green* and her younger siblings, Caitlin, 10, and Michael, 8, make the 10-minute walk home, unlock the door and settle in for few hours until their parents get home from work.
“They’re supposed to unpack their lunches, walk the dog and practise their instruments,” says their mother, Amber McKnight*, who, like her partner, David Green*, works as a physician. “Most of the time, they do — but I find it works best if I leave a written list of what has to get done.” It’s an arrangement that works well for the Thunder Bay, Ont., family, says McKnight, largely because of the kids’ personalities. “They’re all very mellow, sensible children. They tend to be cautious, and they get along.”
Their neighbourhood — quiet and residential, in a city of about 100,000 people — may also contribute to why McKnight and Green feel comfortable letting their kids “latchkey” it. (Parents in more urban areas, or in more isolated rural areas, may feel differently.)
No one law across Canada stipulates how old a child must be to stay home alone, but the Canada Safety Council (CSC) recommends age 10 as a minimum, and that children younger than 12 shouldn’t be left in charge of their younger siblings. Manitoba and New Brunswick regulations state that children can’t legally be left alone until age 12.
Beyond that, it’s a decision best made between parents and children. “The child has to say, ‘OK, I’m ready. I’ll try,’” says Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs at the CSC. His organization also offers a training session for kids 10 and up, designed to help prepare them for solo time after school, held in community centres across Canada.
The key to building your children’s confidence — and your own — is practise, says Shelley Parker, director of training for the British Columbia and Yukon councils of St. John Ambulance, an organization that provides first-aid and safety training. “Meet your child at the end of the bus route. Practise locking and unlocking the door and calling the other parent. Do a few trial runs where you leave your child alone for 15 or 20 minutes, and gradually extend that time to a couple hours at most.”
It’s also important to have a backup plan in case things go awry. What if there’s a power failure? What if someone gets hurt? What if they lose their keys? Elizabeth Green has gone through two keys — she keeps them on a key ring in her backpack — and her 10-year-old sister, Caitlin, is on her second set, says McKnight. “We’ve now hidden a key outside, and we’re looking into getting a keypad to replace the traditional lock altogether. And we have great neighbours the kids can go to if they need anything.”
Increasingly, parents seem to be entrusting their kids with cellphones, says Parker, or using GPS locators (available from Internet and cell providers) placed inside a school backpack to keep track of the walk home, while home-monitoring systems can let parents know when the kids are in the door. McKnight carries a cell, but her kids don’t. Instead, they rely on a standard answering machine to get in touch with the kids after school. “They know to pick up if they hear my voice,” she says.
Even with the best technologies and preparations, “home alone” doesn’t mean four-plus hours of solitude, says Marchand. “Typically, we’re looking at one or two hours after school.” Beyond that window, he recommends additional resources like a babysitter or a grandparent.
While some parents may wrestle with a bit of guilt over the idea of having latchkey kids, Marchand says that with proper preparation, it can be a positive experience for families. “It’s that first step toward responsibility.”
Parent tip: If kids have access to television, computers and iPods while unsupervised, it can be wise to set some advance limits on the amount of screen time they’re entitled to, and to install parental-guidance filters on any device that accesses the Internet.
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline, “Home alone,” p. 90.