Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Figuring out When Children Are Ready to Stay Home Alone

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Figuring out When Children Are Ready to Stay Home Alone

Article excerpt

When Nancy Heermans' live-in babysitter left, she had to choose: Find another sitter, or allow her two oldest daughters to care for themselves after school. The girls "very much wanted to give it a try," says Ms. Heermans, a Washington, D.C., lawyer. So when Gretchen was in the eighth grade and Kate in the sixth, Heermans let them come home on the bus to an empty house.

So far, the arrangement has worked well for the family, and the girls, now 13 and nearly 15, love their freedom. But "it does give kids this age the opportunity to get into trouble," Heermans acknowledges.

For Heermans, her close-knit community plays a large role in her decision to leave the girls on their own, in what is known as self-care. "We have a very close neighborhood - everyone knows everyone, and I'd hear it from all sides if there was a problem," she says.

Child-care experts may dispute the wisdom of self-care, as well as the ideal ages for allowing children to take on this responsibility. But there is little disagreement over the fact that numerous American families count on their children to care for themselves for some period during the week.

According to Beth Miller, research associate at the School Age Child Care Project of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in Wellesley, Mass., approximately 5 million children between the ages of 5 and 13 are in self-care at some point during a typical workweek.

If children are left without parental supervision, a community support system like the Heermans', along with parental awareness of children's schedules, is essential, experts say.

"There should always be a safety net, even for 14- and 15-year-olds - someone they can call on in an emergency," says Jay Settoon, Director of Programs for the Louisiana Council on Child Abuse in Baton Rouge, La.

"A mature nine year-old can do real well at home. But if that child goes out of the house in an emergency and can't find anyone to connect with - that's severe neglect," Mr. Settoon says.

When children have adults nearby who know that the kids are home alone, that safety net encompasses much more than emergency situations, according to Jean Richardson, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

In several studies, Dr. Richardson found a direct correlation between the number of hours California eighth-graders spent on their own and their likelihood to abuse cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol - statistics that raise questions about self-care, especially when considered along with other studies linking hours kids spend alone to higher crime rates.

But Richardson found the safety-net concept to be an alleviating factor: Kids were much less likely to abuse substances if they thought their parents knew where they were.

"It's not the characteristics of the child - their ethnicity, gender, status in school - but what the parent is doing. …

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