- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Trusting children to stay alone is a big step for most parents and represents a tremendous amount of responsibility for the child. While child advocates agree there is no magic age to allow children to care for themselves, they say the average age is 9 to 12.

"It varies age to age, child to child, family to family," says Sandra Hofferth, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "By age 12, most children are caring for themselves at least some of the time. In fact, becoming autonomous is a normal transition. It is OK as long as the child can be supervised from a distance, it's a fairly safe neighborhood and there aren't any other difficulties."

Beth Miller, former research director for the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, concurs.

"The right age to leave your kid? The answer always has to be, 'It depends,' " she says. "It depends on how mature the kid is, how likely to get into trouble, how fearful. And for the absolute minimum age? I don't have a really good answer. It's so much the context and what the kid is ready for. By 12, most kids are ready to be left alone for a short period."

Wanda Thompson, a psychologist at the Freddie Mac Child and Adolescent Protection Center at Children's National Medical Center, says maturity should be the determinant. "Can the child carry out a safety plan? And how well-informed are they about the resources to keep themselves safe?" she asks.

Ms. Thompson advises leaving children with plenty of emergency contact numbers "and practice, through role playing, what they would do in certain situations such as answering the phone, a knock on the door or an accident in the home."

She also suggests giving children code words or passwords to memorize; that way, they can know if an adult is an ally by requesting the password.

"That's why children need to be a little older, because they really do need to be able to process all of this," she says.

Parents should beware of giving their children free rein to the sex and violence easily accessible on a home computer, Ms. Thompson warns, and should double-check that guns and other weapons are locked up. Last, she cautions that parents should not leave alone children "who are too young from a mental-health perspective frightened, too isolated, or a child who cannot be trusted, or if the child has a history of behavioral problems or victimization."

The National Safe Kids Campaign offers a safety checklist for parents:

• Place all emergency numbers (doctor, hospital, police and fire, poison control) and the phone number of a friend or neighbor in a visible place near all phones.

• Point out potential hazards in the home, such as electrical appliances and heating equipment, and teach the child how to avoid injuries.

• Make sure the child knows where the smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms are located and the fire-escape plan. Remind the child to get out of the house immediately if the smoke or carbon-monoxide alarm sounds and to call the fire department from a neighbor's house.

• Plan and practice two escape routes out of the house and each room. It is important to have an alternate escape route in case one is blocked by fire.

• Insist the child use the proper safety gear while cycling, in-line skating or skateboarding and that he always wear a helmet for these activities.

• Show the child where the first aid kit is and how to use the items in it.

• Prepare a snack or meal for the child in advance, preferably one that does not need to be heated. If it must be heated, remind the child to turn off the oven or stove and never to leave a pot unattended while cooking.

• Tell the child where you will be, how you can be reached and when you will return home.

• Leave your beeper or cellular phone number. Knowing your child can reach you in an instant will help put you and your child more at ease.

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