In the new hit movie "Home Alone," an 8-year-old boy named Kevin outsmarts a pair of burglars. And he does it all by himself.
In the movie, Kevin's parents accidentally leave him behind when they go off on a trip to Europe. Of course, your parents would never do that to you.
But sometimes you may end up staying at home on your own for a few hours. During snowstorms, some of you may have been stuck at home while your parents were at work. What did you do? Was it boring? Scary? Or was it comfortable and even fun?
For kids, being home alone can be safe and even enjoyable -- if you're prepared for it.
Many child-development experts feel that no one should be left home alone until he or she is at least 11. Even then, they say, children shouldn't be alone for more than a few hours at a stretch.
But many families don't have a choice. Some parents -- especially single parents -- can't always afford to pay for a babysitter while they're away at work. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that there are 7 million children 10 and younger who care for themselves when they're not in school. You may have heard these children called "latchkey kids." That's because they often carry their own keys around so they can let themselves into the house when they get home.
Before your parents leave you home alone, you should have a serious talk with them about what to do in emergencies. You should have: A check-in system with your parents so they know you are home. A check-in system with a neighbor so someone nearby knows you are in your house or apartment. A plan for what to do in case there is a fire, if you get hurt or if someone tries to get into your house. When you make this plan, ask your mom or dad to write down the numbers of your doctor, the poison control center and your local police and fire stations. Remember, in a real emergency you can dial 911 for help. A schedule for when you will do your homework and when you can play or watch TV. An agreement about what you can have for snacks, how much TV you can watch and how much you can use the phone. Also discuss which household appliances you are allowed to use. For example, you may be able to use the microwave, but you have to leave the gas stove or matches alone. An agreement that you will not open the door to strangers. Maybe your parents could install a peephole in the door at your eye level so you can see who is outside if the doorbell rings. An agreement that your parents will let you know if they are going to be even a few minutes later getting home than they said they would be. An agreement that your parents will spend some special time with you to "pay" you for staying home alone. (See, you're not the only one who has to make promises to make this plan work!)
The chances of having an accident or other problem when you're home alone are pretty small. You're more likely to be bored and lonely. Talk to your parents about what to do about that, too. They may have some great ideas. Here are a few more to get you started: Keep a daily journal. When you get home, write down what happened at school that day. You can share the journal with your mom or dad when they get home. Build a model or paper airplanes.Knit a scarf.Play tapes.Practice the piano, or whatever instrument you are learning to play.Write letters or postcards to friends or relatives who live far away. The good thing about this activity is that you'll start finding mail waiting for you when you get home! Set the table for dinner. Draw funny place cards for other members of your family. Put together a 1,001-piece puzzle.Read a book.Subscribe to a magazine filled with puzzles, games and contests that will help keep you busy.
If you have to stay home alone, be careful -- and keep busy. Your parents will be home before you know it.
Tips for Parents
In a new book "Home-Alone Kids," (Lexington Books), University of North Carolina professor of child development Bobbie Rowland provides a "Home-Alone Risk Test" to help determine whether your child is ready to be on his or her own. Things to consider include your child's age (safest is over 14; least safe, under 6), your child's maturity level, community resources, type of check-in system and the length of time the child is to be left alone (less than an hour is least risky; five hours or more is most). In the District, kids can check in with volunteers at PhoneFriend, who will help with homework, advise kids on problems or just listen to them talk about their day at school. For information about Phone Friend, call 202-223-2244 between 3 and 7 p.m. Many schools have homework help lines; ask your school what services it provides. Need suggestions for activities? Two good resources are "School's Out. Now What?" by Joan Bergstrom and "On My Own: The Kid's Self-Care Book" by Lynette Long.
Catherine O'Neill is a children's writer.