Kevin McCallister may have been unintentionally left home alone in the movies, but what if parents really do need to leave their children at home by themselves?
In a time when parents must return to work and day camps and childcare may be unavailable, what are the rules around staying home alone and how do you know if your child is ready?
Tiffany Morgan’s daughter is almost 12. For the past two years, she’s allowed her daughter to stay home alone. Living in the small, quiet, close-knit community of Makinsons, N.L., she feels comfortable with the idea, and started teaching her the skills to do so years before.
It started with Morgan teaching her daughter how to call her, her grandparents and then 911.
“She knows which of our neighbours to go to and knows them by name and to tell them clearly why she needs their help and my phone number to reach me if needed,” says Morgan.
Then they began with baby steps.
“I started leaving and just running to the corner store, just five minutes away, taking her younger brother with me,” she says. “Over time, at her comfort, I would go further from home or to places that would take longer.”
After awhile, this morphed into her daughter looking after her younger brother.
“I taught her how to be a ‘big sister who babysits’ and not the ‘parent when Mom is gone’,” says Morgan. “She can tell him not to do something if it’s dangerous and he has to listen. But she isn’t allowed to nitpick about silly things she’s just not in the mood for him to do.”
Now Morgan is in the process of teaching her son, now a nine-year-old, to stay home alone by himself as well.
“As a single mom, this age and stage of life makes things a lot less complicated,” she says.
No set formula
Not every child will be ready to stay home alone at the same age.
According to Nancy O'Halloran, owner of BraveHeart First Aid based in Kentville, N.S., there is no minimum legal age for when children can babysit or be left home alone. Each province and country has different guidelines on this. The Nova Scotia Children and Family Services Act is in place to protect children from being hurt. Because households are each a different situation, parents need to do a risk assessment of where they live, the specific arrangements, the length of time alone, safety concerns and previous history, she says.
“It is important to parent your way and not take advice from others. You know your child and lifestyle best,” says O’Halloran.
There are, however, certain recommendations, says O’Halloran. Those seven and under should not be left alone. Children eight to 10 years old could be left for half-an-hour at a time, while 11 to 12 years could be left for 45 minutes. Youth aged 13 to 16 may be left full days or late evenings.
Regardless of age, O’Halloran says children need to show signs of maturity and responsibility, as some children are more mature than others. Some signs may include cleaning up after themselves, showing signs of caring, sharing and safe behaviours.
“If you’re not comfortable as the caregiver, you'll know. Go with that feeling,” she says.
Sometimes, says O’Halloran, it really comes down to whether the child minds being home alone. If they don't want to be alone, it can be very scary and leave some issues for the child later in life. They should never be forced to stay home alone, she says.
When you leave children alone, be very specific, says O’Halloran. Leave nothing unsaid. Go over exactly what they can or can not do.
“I would do up a list and go over (it) together and post it when you leave for reminders of what was agreed upon,” she says.
For example, Travis Chaulk of Conception Bay South, N.L., says when he leaves his almost 12-year-old son home alone, he knows the rules. The door stays locked, no friends are allowed in, he can use the microwave, but hasn’t graduated to the stove while alone yet. He also knows, in case of an emergency, a neighbour where he can go for help.
Chris Landry, owner of Island First Aid Services based in Stratford, P.E.I., says in their Stay Safe program, geared toward ages nine to 11, some of the skills they focus on include safe ways to carry keys, what to do when you hear a "weird sound," how to deal with boredom and calling 911.
To leave a child with a younger sibling, O’Halloran says the older child should really be trained as a certified babysitter, as the first aid skills learned could save a life. But the older child would definitely need to mature enough to make safe decisions for themselves and others, she says.
To help children feel confident and gain these necessary skills, consider signing your child up for a Stay Safe Program. In P.E.I., these are offered through Island First Aid Services; in Nova Scotia, through BraveHeart First Aid; and in Newfoundland, it’s available through St. John Ambulance. These courses may be running virtually during COVID-19 or in person with smaller, modified classes.
Even if a parent is working from home this summer, O’Halloran still recommends having a child taking the course.
“If you are in meetings all day and they have more freedom in the house as parents are busy, I would suggest one of the courses – either the Stay Safe or babysitting course,” she says.
Megan Keefe’s 10-year-old son recently completed the St. John Ambulance program virtually in St. John’s, N.L. She opted to have him do it for the peace of mind. Although he was mature, and she knew he would be fine, Keefe still wanted to make sure he knew what to do.
“Let’s face it, half of what I say goes in one ear and out the other anyway. So, I figured coming from an instructor, he may pay more attention,” she says.
It’s all about playing it safe.
Topics to review with your child before leaving them home alone:
Nancy O’Halloran of BraveHeart First Aid in Kentville, N.S., says before leaving a child alone, make sure you review the following with them:
- How to lock/unlock windows and doors.
- How to turn off the water if a toilet plugs or how to unclog a toilet
- How to call 911 – the address of the house should be posted on every phone just in case a 911 call is required.
- Fire safety, such as what to do if a smoke detector goes off
- Rules about neighbours and friends
- Phone/internet rules
- Kitchen rules (such as no oven use when home alone)
- How to answer the house phone if alone
- What to do in case of power outages – will your land line work? Where can you find a flashlight?
- Where the first aid kit is located