Canadian parents may still be juggling arrangements for a single week of March break, but before too long it will be time to decide how to keep their children busy for the entire summer.
Not everyone can afford summer camp or child care, and many working Canadian parents will have to find another way to keep their children safe and occupied during the summer months.
When her son was younger, Toronto single mother Sharon Lawley was able to send him to camp for part of the summer at Moorelands, which offers a wilderness camp for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity. When camp wasn't in session, Lawley got child-care help from family and friends — but sometimes, she had no choice but to leave her 12-year-old alone at home while she worked.
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"It was really scary," says Lawley. "There were times when I worried, and it was not a good feeling, and I really just wanted to go home."
Lawley taught her son about what to do in case of an emergency, and how to deal with circumstances like a stranger at the door.
"But even though I knew he was OK, I still worried," says Lawley.
What the law says
Lewis Smith, communications co-ordinator with the Canada Safety Council, says his organization tends to get more inquiries about leaving children alone at home after high-profile legal cases like a recent ruling in B.C. In that case, a court found that an eight-year-old child was too young to be left alone at home after school.
Legally speaking, most Canadian provinces and territories don't set a minimum age for leaving children alone in the house. However, laws in Manitoba and New Brunswick state that children younger than 12 cannot be left unsupervised.
Ontario's Child and Family Services Act states that a child under the age of 16 may not be left unattended "without making provision for his or her supervision and care that is reasonable in the circumstances."
The "circumstances" include the maturity of the individual child, says John Syrtash, a family law lawyer and counsel with Garfin Zeidenberg LP in Toronto.
"If you have a 15-year-old who is bright and is well-adjusted and doesn't have any disciplinary problems … then there's not going to be a problem there."
What age is appropriate?
"Age is important, but it's not the only factor" in whether a child can be safely left alone in the house, says Lewis Smith of the Canada Safety Council.
"As a very general baseline, 10 years old seems to be a good place to start," says Smith, but parents have to consider a number of other variables, including the individual child's temperament, maturity level, willingness to follow the rules, and comfort with the idea of staying by themselves.
A child left alone at home should know how to deal with strangers who might call on the phone or come to the door, as well as how to respond to emergencies and administer first aid, according to the Canada Safety Council, which offers home alone training courses for kids across Canada.
Securing the home
"You want to make sure that the house is secure as possible," says Smith, who recommends good locks on the doors and a telephone answering machine so children don't have to answer the phone and let people know they're home alone.
In the summertime, Smith recommends good window blinds to help control the temperature if there's no air conditioning. The Canada Safety Council also specifically recommends against children using trampolines or swimming pools unsupervised.
A trusted neighbour can be a good resource for children who are staying home alone, adds Smith. Ultimately though, children must be able to reach a parent in an emergency — and parents need to be able to get back home to their children if they're needed.
Unstructured time has merits
Assuming children are mature enough to care for themselves at home, child psychologist Catherine Horvath sees no fundamental problem with leaving them alone at home, in moderation. But she recommends that children be given structure and routine, as well as the possibility for contact with their peers if possible.
"I don't think kids need to be in summer camp all summer," says Horvath. "I think there's a lot of social pressure to program our kids" with extracurricular activities.
"We know that kids need unstructured time to just play," adds Horvath.
If a child does need to be left alone at home, however, Horvath recommends limiting unsupervised access to electronics, including video games and social media. Without parental oversight, warns Horvath, social media can provide opportunities for children to bully each other.
Horvath also advises that staying home alone is a bad idea for children who are prone to depression, anxiety or self-harm, as well as children with poor impulse control or a tendency to engage in risky behaviours.
Barbara Morrongiello, a professor of child psychology at the University of Guelph, adds that any contact between children and their friends should be supervised by an adult, as having two children unsupervised in a home can be a recipe for trouble.
Morrongiello also warns that leaving older children to look after their younger siblings without guidelines can lead to an increased risk of injury to the younger child. She recommends making it clear that the older sibling is the boss.
That "empowers the older child to assume a very legitimate responsibility, and increases their supervision," says Morrongiello.
"Telling both of them who's in charge and why, and what the ground rules are, reduces the risk."