I've left my nine-year old daughter home alone for short periods of time on occasion, but now I may have to reconsider my choice.
Last week, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled that kids under the age of 10 should not be left alone, regardless of their maturity. The decision came after child protective services found out a single mom (known only as B.R. in courts) from Terrace, BC left her eight-year-old son home alone every day after school for two hours. (The woman's other kid, age four, was left with a caregiver during those two hours.)
Initially, a provincial court judge ruled that B.R. supervise her eight-year-old at all times, including those two hours she usually left him alone. The mom appealed the decision, but Supreme Court Justice Robert Punnett sided with the social workers, who pointed out a variety of risks and dangers that could befall a kid left alone in the house—from accidental poisoning to fires. The social workers stated that "Children who are eight years of age do not have the cognitive ability to be left unsupervised." Across Canada, the guidelines for leaving kids home alone differ.
New York-based author Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids calls the BC ruling “worst-first thinking”—a typical response to the notion of giving kids responsibility and independence. We automatically assume the worst can happen and then believe that it will happen. Skenazy writes, “Our culture’s problem is that we have been trained to automatically fantasize about disaster anytime we hear of a child alone, as if simply being unsupervised = death."
What does this situation look like in our house? Once our kids turn 10, they can opt out of errands and family events to stay home alone for a few hours. However, there were a few times I left my kids home alone for short stretches when they were between the ages of eight and 10—basically for the amount of time it took me to pick up their sibling from school or run a quick errand.
I've never worried about a fire spontaneously breaking out while they are home alone, nor do I think they will randomly decide to drink bleach. Usually, I just wonder if they'll even get off the couch long enough to let the dog out. (Obviously, before they're left alone we go over basic safety measures and have important phone numbers nearby.)
That said, I wouldn’t want my eight-year-old coming home after school every day to an empty house. I would be concerned for their emotional well-being. However, I'm lucky enough to have resources and a support system in place, so I don’t need to make that difficult choice. Some parents, like B.R., don’t have the same childcare options and their kids need to fend for themselves every once in awhile. Forcing those parents into lengthy court battles doesn’t help anyone—let alone the kids.
We've seen instances in the US where parents have been arrested for leaving their kids unattended while going on job interviews or working a shift. A court ruling like the one in BC will only make it harder for some parents, and not just those who need to leave their kids alone for work, but those of us who don’t want to drag a sick kid to the drugstore for a quick errand. When people turn into vigilantes who seek out parents who are behaving in a way they disagree with, nobody wins.
Being a latchkey kid was a fact of life for many people in previous generations. Kids haven’t changed much over the years and society hasn’t really gotten any more dangerous. However, our level of anxiety has increased. As Lenore Skenazy observes, “Helicopter parenting is becoming the law of the land.” And is that really what we want?
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