- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

When Debbie and Jon Katz’s oldest son, Zachary, was nearly 9, Mrs. Katz explored the idea of leaving him at home without a baby sitter for a half-hour or so.

Mrs. Katz researched what the law was — or at least the recommendations were — for Fairfax County. She discussed with her son what he thought he should know, such as whether to answer the door and how to reach her on her cellular phone. She even sent him to a Home Alone class at a local community center.

Zachary, now 10, still doesn’t stay by himself very often. When he does, though, Mrs. Katz feels she and her son are well-prepared.

“I was surprised to see there was no set standard for when is it OK,” says Mrs. Katz, who lives in Herndon. “But I felt he was mature enough. After he took the class, I felt more comfortable.”

Being home alone — whether for 40 minutes while mom runs an errand or for a few hours after school every day — is a big milestone for both parents and children. Most jurisdictions have recommendations rather than laws that state the minimum age.

However, many other factors go into making this decision, including the maturity of the child, whether other children are in the house, the length of time the parents will be away, whether it is day or night, and how the child feels about it.

“Every child is different,” says Jean O’Neill, director of research and evaluation at the District-based National Council on Crime Prevention. “Certainly part of growing up is to be able to handle things on your own. Knowing what the standard is for your community is paramount. We are not going to advise parents to break the law.”

Parents can contact their state or county child services office to find out what the rule is in their area. For example, Maryland is one of just two states that have a law on the issue. It says no child younger than 8 can be alone or with a person younger than 13 supervising.

Fairfax County guidelines state that children ages 8 to 10 should be alone for no more than 90 minutes and only during daylight hours. There is no minimum age in the District. Loudoun County guidelines say children younger than 10 should not be left alone, and children ages 10 to 12 should not be unsupervised more than two hours.

Second, know your child, Ms. O’Neill says.

“Think about where your child is on the decision-making scale,” she says. Does he make good decisions on basic things, such as what to eat or what to wear? Would he recognize when a situation is dangerous?”

Just because your local jurisdiction says a child can stay home alone doesn’t mean you should let him, says Pat Louis, coordinator of the DC Safe Kids Campaign.

“Our position is that no child should stay alone until he or she is 12,” she says. “You want to make sure he is mature enough to follow instructions and handle emergencies. By age 12, a child is usually able to take on that responsibility. He can occupy himself, fix a snack and call 911 if he has to.”

Next, decide what the rules should be. Mrs. Katz has a rule that either Zachary or his brother, Josh, 8, can stay by himself for a short period of time, but they may not stay alone in the house together. Other house rules: The boys can’t go outside, cook or answer the door.

Those are all good rules, says Kim Damion, community outreach coordinator for Montgomery General Hospital in Olney. Montgomery General offers a monthly Home Alone class that covers everything from first aid to how to use a microwave.

When setting the house rules, concentrate on positive statements such as, “You may do this,” instead of what the children may not do, Ms. Louis says. Then practice what you have discussed by having the child show you what he knows.

“Rehearse how to handle calls,” she says. “Teach them to say ‘My mom can’t come to the phone,’ not ‘No one is home.’ Have them show you how to work the deadbolt. Physically rehearse what to do in case of a fire. If you practice what you would do, then they will do the right thing automatically.”

It also is a good idea to work out in advance who can come into the house, Ms. O’Neill says.

“By and large, I would set the rule at no one else is in the house,” she says. “I know that can be annoying for the child, but the fact is, you don’t want to invite the egging on of each other that kids are known to do. It is a fact of childhood that kids will say things like ‘I dare you.’”

Regularly alone

It is one step to leave a child alone for 30 minutes. It is another — and bigger — step for a child to stay alone daily.

About 7 million children in the United States are “latchkey children,” Ms. Louis says.

Allowing a child to come home alone after school is a much tougher judgment call, she adds.

“I say, the older the better,” she says. “About 4.5 million children under 14 are injured in the home every year. A lot of these injuries occur when kids are unsupervised. If you do not think your child is able to handle this on a daily basis, then you need to find someone to look after them or find an after-school program.”

If a child is going to come home alone after school, there should be a set schedule, along with the set of rules, Ms. O’Neill says.

First, have the child check in with you when he is safely home. If you know you can’t be reached at that time, designate another responsible adult, such as a neighbor or grandparent, as a check-in source.

After that, he should know the routine: homework, chores, TV or whatever has been set up in advance.

“With any of these rules, set the penalties upfront,” she says. “Do not set them when you are outraged or panicked.”

The set of rules should be re-evaluated each season or school year, Ms. Louis says. That way, adjustments can be made for weather conditions (What are the boundaries if he wants to ride his bicycle on a spring day or play in the snow?) or schoolwork (Now that he’s in sixth grade, is there more work to be done after school?).

Susan Reese, a pseudonym for a local woman who did not want her last name used for privacy reasons, returned to work as a teacher in the fall. Her 8-year-old son, Mark, goes to a child care program after school. However, she decided to let her older son, Alan, nearly 12, come home by himself after school.

Alan had been staying alone for short periods of time over the previous few years. He took a Home Alone course, and then Mrs. Reese and her husband began testing the situation by leaving him alone for 15 minutes, then a half-hour at a time.

Mrs. Reese says she feels OK about the after-school setup, primarily because she usually is home about 30 minutes after her son.

The Reeses set up the rules in advance. Alan gets off the bus, lets himself in with his own key, then calls his mother on her cellular phone. He must then start his homework. He can get a snack but is not allowed to cook. Alan can log onto his computer, which has been protected so he can’t access certain Web sites.

So far, so good, says Mrs. Reese.

It definitely is a weird milestone,” she says.

Put parents’ cellular phone numbers and other emergency numbers in an easy-to-find place.

Establish house rules and post them. House rules should cover:

• Answering the door and phone. Children should never tell anyone they are home alone. Instead, they should tell callers their parents are not able to take the call at the moment and take a message. If you have voice mail or an answering machine, the children may not have to answer the phone. Remind them always to use the window or peephole to see who is at the door. Tell children specifically who is allowed in.

• Boundaries. Where children can go and what they can do should be discussed ahead of time. Can they use the stove? Can they play on the computer or talk on the phone? Can they go outside? How far from home can they go? Can a neighborhood friend come over to play? Parents of friends should always give permission for the visit and should have your telephone number available.

• In the kitchen. Children should know how to operate appliances safely. If you give them permission to use the microwave, they should have a lesson on the right way to use it.

To help prepare your child to stay home alone:

• Emergency plans. Go over what is and is not an emergency and how to deal with it. Devise an exit plan in case of fire. Make sure they know where the first aid kit is.

mRole play. Run through a few scenarios with your children ahead of time. For instance, pretend you are a deliveryman and see how they react to your knocking on the door.

• Find a friend. Is there a responsible parent who usually is home in the neighborhood? Perhaps he or she could be a close-by contact for your children in case they can’t reach you.

mTake a class. Many community centers and hospitals offer classes for children ages 8 to 12 in staying home alone or learning to baby-sit. These classes go over basic safety, first aid and decision-making.

If you are considering letting your children stay alone after school on a daily basis, keep these things in mind:

• Discuss the routines they are to follow — checking in with a parent by telephone, household chores, pets to tend, homework. Also, if you are not going to be coming home at your regular time, let your children know.

• Help your child memorize his address and phone number and teach him to use the phone to make emergency calls; how to recognize an emergency; and how locks, deadbolts and alarm systems work.

• Make provisions if your child is locked out. Can you keep an extra key at a neighbor’s house? Make sure your child knows which neighbor has the key.

• Make sure your child knows where a flashlight is. Go over what to do in extreme circumstances, such as thunderstorms and fires.

• Designate a message center to post any notes, reminders or changes in plans and schedules. Post emergency numbers along with parents’ work and cellular phone numbers.

• Listen to your child. If he or she has any fears or there is other stress going on in the home, it might be time to re-evaluate the decision for self-care.

Sources: Montgomery General’s Home Alone class; National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies; National Safe Kids Campaign.

More info:

Books —

• “Staying Home Alone,” by Dottie Raymer, American Girl Publishing, 2002. This book is part of a series of guides published by American Girl. It covers everything from safety tips to getting along with siblings.

• “The Ultimate Baby-Sitter’s Handbook,” by Debra Mostow Zakarin, Price Stern Sloan, 1997. This book is aimed at preteens who want to start baby-sitting, but many of the tips and lessons can apply to children caring for themselves as well.

• “Disaster Blasters: A Kid’s Guide to Being Home Alone,” by Karin Kasdin and Laura Szabo-Cohen, Avon Books, 1995. This book covers all sorts of situations and how to cope safely with them.

Association —

• National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, 1319 F St. NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20004. Phone: 800/424-2246. Web site: www.childcareaware.org. This nonprofit organization has a checklist to determine whether your child is ready to stay alone (www.childcareaware.org/en/dailyparent/0399/), as well as information on sources of child care.

Local resources —

To learn about the child care regulations for some local areas, call these numbers:

Maryland:

• Montgomery County — 240/777-3500

• Prince George’s County — 301/386-1270

Virginia:

• Fairfax County — 703/324-7400

• Arlington County — 703/228-1500

• Prince William County — 703/792-4200

• Loudoun County — 703/777-0353

District: 202/442-6000

Check with your local community center or YMCA to see if Home Alone or baby-sitting classes are offered. Here are two upcoming Home Alone classes:

• Montgomery General Hospital in Olney will offer Home Alone Basics from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 5, March 12, April 16, May 14 and June 18. Classes are free. More information: 301/774-8882 or www.montgomerygeneral.com.

• Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville will offer Home Alone from 2 to 4 p.m. April 9. Fee: $10. More information: 301/279-6000 or www.adventist healthcare.com.

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