This is a very common question that I frequently get asked in my office and also by friends in social settings. How often has it happened, that you are the only parent in the house, and you forget to buy one item (mostly milk in our household) at the supermarket 5 minutes away from your house? Do you really have to get Johnny dressed again after he had his bath and is in his pyjamas, or could he just stay home alone for the 15-20 minutes this will take?
The truth of the matter is, that there is no clearcut answer to the question. A lot of it depends on the maturity of the child, and the extent to which the parents have prepared the child. Let me warn the readers that I do not pretend that I have covered all the details of this difficult question in this blog post nor that the guidelines I am laying out here are set in stone. You can not use the content of what’s written here to justify leaving your (immature) 9-yr old home alone only to find disastrous consequences such as broken items or an injured child.
Let me state clearly that parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s safety.
Is there a legal age that my child can stay home alone?
In Canada there is no law that dictates what age a child can be left at home unattended. In the U.S. only 2 states have laws that stipulate an age (Maryland and Illinois). Common sense of the parent (I hope parents will not leave their 2-yr old child unattended at home) combined with the maturity of the child will determine at what age it is deemed to be safe for the child to be left at home alone for a short period of time. Equally important, the child must feel confident and comfortable with the idea of being left home alone.
Are there any general guidelines when I could leave my child home alone?
Depending on the maturity of the child, a child between the ages of 9-11 years old could be left alone for a period of up to 1-2 hours. Parents should teach their kids general safety rules, such as who to contact in an emergency, not to answer the phone unless it is a phone number you have deemed to be safe (eg., parents cell phone or grandparents), what to do if someone rings the doorbell, how to react in case of fire etc. An example of more detailed instructions can be found at the Canadian Red Cross site.
I also recommend running a few “practice scenarios” of things that could occur. When you feel your child is ready, I suggest the first time your child is left alone, you visit your neighbour or someone on the same street (your child does not need to know you are only a few steps away).
Please note the use of the word “child” and not the plural “children”. A child younger than 12 years old cannot be left in charge of other children.
Are there any courses my child could follow?
In Canada, the Canadian Red Cross offers babysitter courses from 11 years on. Some community centres also offer courses for younger children that teach them about home safety (contact your local community centre to find out if they have any courses for the younger children).
Are there any rules when it comes to my 13-year old daughter babysitting my two younger children?
First of all I recommend your child takes the babysitting course. Secondly, a few general rules I would recommend for the 12-15 year old babysitters (bear in mind that these are suggestions, of course everything depends on the maturity and experience level of the babysitter):
- do not leave them in charge to supervise swimming or bathing;
- they should not cook on a stove;
- they should not babysit overnight; and
- generally speaking, try not to let them babysit for a period of longer than 4 hours.
- When to leave a child home alone is dependent on the maturity of each individual child and the level of preparedness.
- Children older than 12 years old can babysit younger siblings, but not overnight and not for a period more than 4 hrs.
- If a 9-11 year old is deemed mature and ready, he/she could be left alone for up to 2 hours. However, they should not be left in charge of younger siblings.
- Parents are ultimately responsible for their children’s safety.