When you saw "Home Alone," you probably laughed as loud as all the other kids in the movie theater. Eight-year-old Kevin's tricks for capturing the crooks who try to break into his family's house are hilarious.

Being home alone for a few hours each day is something many American kids have to learn to cope with, and being home alone in real life isn't like the movies.

Nationally, 5 million to 7 million children go home from school to houses where there is no adult present, according to a 1997 study conducted by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston. Roughly one-third of all 12-year-olds nationwide are on their own for at least part of the day while their parents work, the study found.

People call children who go home to empty houses "latchkey kids" for the house or apartment keys they carry.

Experts say latchkey children are more likely to engage in risky behavior than kids who are supervised. Whether they live in the city, in suburbs or in rural areas, latchkey kids are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, skip school, get poor grades and experience stress.

Steve McFadyen-Ketchum, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says leaving youngsters unsupervised is not a good idea. "Eleven-, 12- and 13-year-old kids do not need to be wandering around alone," McFadyen-Ketchum says. "Pre-adolescents are at a lot more risk than people may realize for drug abuse, including alcohol and cigarettes."

Another Vanderbilt psychologist, Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey, echoes that view and says even teenagers need some supervision, though "the amount and type of supervision each child needs varies depending on age."

While being home alone may not be ideal for kids, for many families there is no alternative. There may not be any after-school programs in the neighborhood, and babysitters may be too expensive. In such cases, preparing kids for being home alone--and making sure parents keep in close touch--can help keep bad things from happening.

Hoover-Dempsey says that when children are 8 or 9 years old, parents can try leaving them alone in the house for short periods--perhaps while they run next door for 15 minutes or while they work outside in the yard for a half-hour. She says parents and kids should practice what to do in various situations--if the telephone rings or if someone comes to the door, for instance.

The Vanderbilt psychologists say close monitoring by telephone is critical for children of all ages who are home alone. "They need that sense of Mom or Dad being there, wanting to know what's happening and being accessible for questions that come up," Hoover-Dempsey says.

Younger kids need those reassuring phone calls often, she says. Older kids can make an agreement with their parents to check in at prearranged times.

"Parents need to know where their children are, what they are doing and who they are with," says McFadyen-Ketchum.

Another crucial arrangement for kids home alone is making sure that a trusted adult is available nearby in case of an emergency. "Children need to know that someone is accessible," says Hoover-Dempsey.

If you are a latchkey kid, make sure that you and the grown-ups in your life talk through everything you need to know to be safe. Don't be embarrassed about feeling nervous when you're alone. Grown-ups often feel that way, too! Making a plan for your hours alone and staying in touch with your parents by phone can make the time fly by.

Tips for Parents

Parents should begin preparing children early on to accept responsibility for their actions, then gradually allow them to exercise independence, advises Vanderbilt University psychologist Kathleen Hoover-Dempsey. She suggests that parents start by creating opportunities for "supervised independence" for children as young as 4. For example, they might ask a child to turn off the television after a program is over and set the table for dinner. "It's very important for parents to observe the choices their children make and provide feedback about why those choices were appropriate," Hoover-Dempsey says. "It's a gradual process, and it takes time. Kids will make mistakes, but it's crucial that parents help them understand the consequences of their actions--why not taking the responsible path creates problems for them, for you and for the family."

For You to Do

If you are going to be on your own in the house after school or on a weekend, writing a "Home Alone" contract with your parents can help keep you safe. Here are some items the contract should include:

* How much TV and computer time you are allowed.

* A homework schedule.

* What snacks you can eat and whether you can use the stove or microwave to prepare them.

* An agreement that you can be trusted not to experiment with drugs, alcohol or cigarettes.

* A list of numbers to call in an emergency if you can't reach your parents.