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Home Alone

Would your 11-, 12-, or 13-year-old know where in the house to go to keep safe during a bad storm? Does he or she know how to use kitchen appliances safely? Would he or she know to get out of the house immediately if there were a fire?

I'd like to be able to answer yes, yes, and yes. But suddenly I'm not so sure. And yet I do sometimes (though not often) let my 11-year-old stay home by himself.

A new report from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health suggests that many parents leave their "tweens" at home alone, at least for a few hours, despite misgivings that the kids aren't sufficiently prepared to keep themselves safe.

The poll asked about 1,500 parents how frequently they left their tweens home alone and how confident they were that the kids would follow safety guidelines when left by themselves. Most parents reported being very confident that their kids would leave the house in a hurry if there were a fire and that they wouldn't play with guns. They were less confident that their kids would know not to give out personal information over the phone or the Internet, use kitchen appliances safely, or go to a safe place during a storm.

Even so, the poll found that nearly two-thirds of parents left tweens home alone for an hour or two, and one-fifth left them home alone for a whole day.

It's a big deal, to parent and child, to leave a kid this age home alone: it can feel liberating to both parties, and it certainly can be convenient. But it also can be a leap of faith: many of us want to believe our kids are ready but don't necessarily do much to get them ready. I know that I haven't had all the conversations with my son that I should have had by now: I assume, for instance, that he'd know better than to give out personal information over the phone (whether I'm home with him or not), but I can't recall having discussed that with him.

The issue is less pressing in my work-at-home household than it is for many families with all available parents working full-time jobs. For those folks, the decision as to whether to leave kids home alone becomes acute as summer approaches: it's hard to cobble together (much less afford) enough camps and other supervised activities to fill a whole summer's worth of work weeks. Older kids may be fully equipped to take care of themselves, and younger ones can go to day care. But options can be limited for the in-between set.

The report notes that there's no hard-and-fast rule saying when a kid's old enough to be left on his or her own; it all depends on how mature and responsible -- and informed -- the child is.

The Checkup can't help make your kid more mature and responsible. But as for better informed, here are some links (provided by the folks who did the poll) to help prepare your tween -- or even your full-fledged teen -- for staying home alone:

* Child Care Aware: Is your child ready to stay at home?

* UMHS Your Child: Internet safety

* UMHS Your Child: Guns and kids

* Department of Homeland Security - Ready America: Storm preparedness

* National Fire Protection Association

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to have a little talk with my kids.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 16, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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