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Deciding when to leave a child home alone

"Staying Home Alone" (American Girl Publishing, $9.95) by Jennifer Wolf is a resource for parents who are preparing their children to stay home alone for the first time. Photo Credit: Handout

Bet you never thought the day would come: You can start to think about leaving your child home alone. Imagine going to the supermarket or clothes shopping without a cranky kid in tow.

But unlike so many other aspects of child care that are clearly defined by a pediatrician's instruction or government regulation, this rite of passage is murky and often fraught with anxiety for kids and parents alike. Below, youth experts offer advice on deciding if a child is ready to stay home alone. 

THE LAW LOWDOWN: "New York State does not specifically set the age at which children can be legally left alone," says attorney Carolyn Wolf, a senior partner at Abrams Fensterman Llc in Lake Success. So, unfortunately, there are no straightforward answers. "Since the law is unclear as to what would specifically constitute a chargeable offense of child neglect, parents must obviously exercise caution when considering leaving children home alone and make intelligent, reasoned decisions," Wolf adds.

The point is that you can't say a child is ready to stay alone just because he or she has reached a certain chronological age, says Madeline Seifer, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic at Hofstra University's Saltzman Community Services Center. "But if I had to give a definitive age to suggest, I'd advise that no child under 12 be left alone for any amount of time. Twelve is a transitional age that is often a good start."

However, there are circumstances that are OK: for instance, a mature 10-year-old may be fine if mom goes to walk the dog for a few minutes or visits a neighbor, says Seifer. And a 13-year-old left alone while mom is shopping may be OK versus going away for the day . . . It all depends on the maturity of your child, prior experiences and the given situation," says Seifer. 

TAKE DRY RUNS: First go outside to get the mail. The next time, take a walk down the block for a few minutes, suggests Seifer. Then you might want to pick up some groceries and be back in 15 minutes. Make sure there is a neighbor nearby, and someone your child or you could call. See how your child feels after each separation period and praise him for his success.

CHECK IN: After a half-hour, call and tell your child you'll be back in 20 minutes. After a few times, that may not be necessary. And, if they do well, you can stay out longer.

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Are you leaving your child alone or with a sibling or friend? "Sometimes kids can get into more trouble with a friend or sibling -- more skirmishes, more experimentation," says Seifer. You have to know the individual relationships. Sometimes it might be better to leave a child home alone.

MAKE RULES: Is the TV or computer allowed? Do you expect homework to be completed? Be clear if you don't want your child to use the microwave, toaster or oven, and if having friends over is permissible. Are they allowed to go to a neighbor? Be very specific about your expectations.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Camilo Ortiz, a licensed clinical psychologist and an associate professor of clinical psychology at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in Brookville, says that before leaving a child home alone it's important to role play situations that might come up when you leave them alone for real. "Many parents think their child would be able to handle an emergency or tricky situation, but kids often panic. A little practice may go a long way," says Ortiz. For instance: If your child believes there's an intruder or if there's a medical emergency, he should know to call 911. Practice a dialogue and play operator.

POST INFO: Give your child emergency numbers for the police, fire department and nearby neighbors or relatives. Go over all fire safety rules and what to do in case of fire. Leave your cellphone number, and, if possible, a landline if your cellphone service is interrupted. Make sure your child demonstrates that he knows how to call you -- that is, one plus the area code plus the telephone number.

HOUSE ALARMS: Do you want your child to activate the alarm when you leave? If so, be sure they can memorize alarm and pass codes.

PHONE RULES: How about answering the phone? Have your child practice his response if someone calls to speak with you. Make sure he understands why he should say, "My mother isn't available right now versus she isn't home," and to simply respond with, "May I take a message?" If you have caller ID, you may want to tell your children not to pick up the phone at all unless it's a recognizable number, suggests Ortiz.

DOOR RULES: Some parents make it a rule that a child can't open the door for anyone -- family or friends. A child must also be aware that they should never open the door even if someone claims to be a police officer or says that he or she has an important package for you. In all these cases, train your child to call you first and to have the confidence not to open the door to anyone.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION

"Staying Home Alone" (American Girl Publishing, $9.95) by Jennifer Wolf is a resource for parents who are preparing their children to stay home alone for the first time. It's filled with quizzes and activities to test your child's knowledge and build her or his confidence and level of safety in a magazine-like format.

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