Spreading Their Wings; When Children Can be Left Home Alone


There comes a moment in every parent's life, when the kids are creeping up on middle school and no longer need you constantly, when you start to think about leaving the house without them.  

Maybe you need to run to the bank, or grab a few groceries, or get your hair done. Perhaps you are getting frustrated because they are moving so, so slow, and you think, "Are they old enough that I could just leave them for twenty minutes, an hour, two hours?" 

This thought usually starts hitting parent's minds around the time their kids turn eight or nine years old. Those same kids are probably getting their own breakfast, making their own school lunches, perhaps doing some laundry or taking out the garbage. Their level of responsibility has increased and you begin to trust them to behave on their own, for a short while.

This idea might sit with you through the day and you begin to be more confident about the thought. And then, you read the news headlines:

"Child services grills Winnipeg mom after she let her kids play alone in their fenced- in backyard."...

"A Princiapl Calls CPS after mom lets daughter, 10, ride city bus to school."...

"Maryland family under investigation for letting their kids walk home alone."...

These headlines conflict with what many of us remember as children; playing for hours alone outside with our friends, roaming from one house to the other until the street lights came on. Or watching our younger siblings for an hour here or there at 10 and 11 years old.

In Canada it’s a muddled subject because in only two provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick, does their child welfare act state an age (12 years old) at which children can be legally left home alone. And more locally, in September 2015, the BC Supreme Court, ruled that children under the age of 10 should not be left home alone, regardless of how mature the parents think they are, (or the child actually is).

So, that gives parents pause. My son, at 10 years old, was easily ready to stay home on his own.  But I was afraid to leave him, not because I thought I'd come home to a disaster, or worse, a tragedy, but because I was more worried about what might happen if someone got wind of a 10 year old on his own.  

To further solidify this fear, I remember a group of ladies all chatting one day about after-school care, and my friend mentioned her daughter was going home after school and watching her younger sister. Someone else asked how old her daughter was, and my friend paused before saying, "twelve." The truth was her daughter was just barely 11 at the time, but the fear of judgement or recrimination, made her tell a little white lie. 

Being able to stay home alone is a rite of passage for children. It gives them some independence and freedom within the safe confines of a familiar place, their home. It is the stepping stone to babysitting, many kid’s first real job outside of mowing their own lawn, or setting up a lemonade stand. It is a rite of passage for parents too, and an important one in the journey of leading our children down the path to self-sufficiency.

There is no golden age, and we as parents really do know our children best. But how do we take that step without the fear that social services will come knocking on the door?  It can be an agonizing decision, but I know that when I felt my son was ready, we let him stay home and we didn’t take much consideration to his age at the time. And when my daughter is ready, whether it’s at 10, 11 or 12, she will also be given her wings of independence... on our terms.

Amber Regamey Marsh