Friday, September 08, 2017

Four Kids and A Bus: Encouraging Independence and Confidence in Our Children

This week in Ontario, kids across the province have been heading back to school. Some go by car, others by school bus or public transit, still others walk or ride their bikes. These kids may travel with parents, friends, siblings, or by themselves. In every instance we hope and expect that families are making the best transportation decisions, that work for their situation, and that are safe for the kids.

In British Columbia this week, a father has been told his 4 children, aged 7, 8, 9, and 11, must find a new arrangement for getting back and forth to school, because they are too young to ride public transit on their own.

I'll let that sink in.

Four siblings, together, the eldest being 11. They travel on a single bus route from the same departure point to the same destination. Every day. To add to this, their father has taken the time to ride that route with them innumerable times over two years, assessing their comfort levels and abilities, and gradually letting them do more and more of it own their own. He knew when they were ready to do it all without him, and he let them spread their wings.

Independence. Responsibility. Confidence. All these are wonderful things his kids have developed through these experiences. And you, know, that's what raising our kids to be competent, fully functioning adults is about - fostering skills in them from a young age to help them cope when it's time for them to face the world on their own.

I encourage you to read Adrian Crook's story over on his blog, 5 Kids 1 Condo. He's been interviewed by a number of news outlets this week, so you may already be familiar, but his written piece provides more detail on the situation and the ramifications of the government's decision. How did all this come about? An anonymous individual contacted BC's Ministry of Children and Family Development to report this group of 4 children riding the bus alone (horrors!) After an intensive investigation, the Ministry determined that these kids could not be allowed on the bus without adult supervision.

Ultimately, however, the Ministry had checked with their lawyers “across the country” and the Attorney General, and determined that children under 10 years old could not be unsupervised in or outside the home, for any amount of time. That included not just the bus, but even trips across the street to our corner store, a route I can survey in its entirety from my living room window. - Adrian Crook (link above)
I'm gobsmacked. According to this, I guess the 11 year old is good to go. But he can't be considered responsible for his younger siblings until he turns 12.

In Canada, only Manitoba and New Brunswick have legislated an age at which children can be left home alone, and that is 12. Crook indicates that Ontario has a legislated age of 16, but that's not entirely correct. Here is the section from the Child and Family Services Act (R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER C.11):
Leaving child unattended
(3) No person having charge of a child less than sixteen years of age shall leave the child without making provision for his or her supervision and care that is reasonable in the circumstances. [emphasis mine]
Reverse onus
(4) Where a person is charged with contravening subsection (3) and the child is less than ten years of age, the onus of establishing that the person made provision for the child’s supervision and care that was reasonable in the circumstances rests with the person.

According to a 2016 article from the CBC, "The 'circumstances' include the maturity of the individual child, ... John Syrtash, a family law lawyer and counsel with Garfin Zeidenberg LP in Toronto." 

What is so encouraging about this legislation is its clear acceptance of the guardian's judgment. A parent knows their child and circumstances best. Age is not the only consideration.

This of course refers to leaving a child alone at home. To specifically compare to the public transportation issue, let's look at the transportation policy of the largest school board in Canada. The Toronto District School Board provides school bus service to children through the end of 5th grade, if they live at least 1.6km away from their home school, or designated French immersion or gifted program school. When those students hit 6th grade, their busing privileges are revoked. In grades 6, 7, and 8, they may be eligible to receive free tickets to ride public transportation (TTC), if they live at least 3.2km from their home/designated school.

This is the situation we encountered this year. Michael spent last year being bused to a gifted program school. He was in grade 5. When this year began, he would have had to take public transit on his own, or I would have to drive him back and forth each day (15-30 minutes each direction, depending on traffic). His travel would have included walking 2 blocks, crossing 6 lanes of traffic, getting on bus number 1, transferring to a second bus, crossing another 6 lanes of traffic, walking three blocks to get to his school. 

Michael is 11 (January baby), and very mature. He also has ADHD and is amazingly distractable. I have absolutely no problem leaving him home alone for an hour or two at a time, but I have serious doubts he would be able to navigate this trip on his own. He would be physically safe, I am sure, but, in his case, God only knows where he would end up and if he would ever make it to school on time!! I know my child. Home alone - totally capable. Going to the local playground or walking a couple blocks to a friend's house - no problem. Public transit alone - not yet. (For the record, he's returned to his home school this year because of this concern.)

While my son is going into 6th grade at 11, any child born September through December is heading in at age 10. The TDSB, the largest school board in Canada, in the hugely diverse and busy city of Toronto, believes that a 10 year old, alone, no parents or siblings, can find their way to school on our (less than spectacular) public transit system, across transfers and all. Ok. I suspect in many cases, they are correct, but in our case they are not. This age of 10 is the same as with the ruling in the BC case (I wonder if this is one of the policies they looked at?), but that doesn't necessarily mean the TDSB are saying kids younger than 10 can't take public transportation. The policy as I understand it is based on available resources, and once a student hits a certain grade, they simply age out of busing privileges. (TDSB, please correct me if I'm wrong.)

At any rate, my point is that the TDSB is saying "sure he's ready!" while I, as Michael's parent, know he is not. It's the opposite of Crook's situation, but I believe it highlights the fact that actual research and factual evidence does not and cannot exist that would allow us to make such blanket statements about when a child will reach an age of being responsible enough to be left alone or to be out in public alone. Every child is unique, and this question is not answered with a number, but with a more gestalt assessment of each child's individual maturity level, independence, comfort, and capabilities. And that's something only that child's parents can truly know.

As Crook says in his article, "It’s a “Cover Your Ass” culture, where even if a trivial issue is reported the Ministry cannot condone it, lest they be responsible for future issues. The Ministry has no incentive or ability to dismiss a report or allow a situation to continue – regardless of how many steps a parent has taken to ensure the safety and well-being of their children." I am not a lawyer, but I think if Crook were in Ontario, he could make a strong case that his kids riding the bus together without him is "reasonable in the circumstances," as per our legislation. The onus would be on him to prove it for the kids under 10, as he attempted to do in BC, but he would have the legislative framework in place for that.

It's sad that we have become such a litigious and judgmental society. No one would have batted an eye 30 years ago, to see a group of young siblings riding public transit together. This father is doing what appears to be a fantastic job raising confident and competent young people. And some busybody on their bus, with no real knowledge of the kids, their situation, their family, has just circumscribed their world and their independence to a terrible degree. The Ministry is, as is often the case especially if risk assessment departments get involved, erring on the side of extreme caution, to cover their butts.

What do you think? Am I being too "free-range"? Or do you think maturity is about more than a number and that we as parents know our kids best? I am totally open to respectful debate!

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