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Home Alone? When It's Safe

The "Home Alone" movies mined the concept of children on their own for all its comedic possibility, but as every parent knows, leaving you child home alone is no laughing matter.

According to a recent survey done by "Child Trends," a non-profit research organization, millions of children 12 and under, some as young as 5, are regularly left home alone for some part of the day. Surprisingly, there is no law that sets an age limit for when children can be left home unsupervised.

Freddi Greenberg, editor-in-chief of "Nick Jr. Family" magazine, offers advice on how parents can determine if their child is old enough to be left home alone and whether he or she is able to take care of younger siblings. She also explains what information children left alone should have.

Greenberg tells The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler there is no specific age. "The number one thing you need to keep in mind is the responsibility and the maturity of your child," she says. "On average, it's 11 or 12 when parents can begin to think about leaving the child alone. And that's only alone with themselves."

Children mature at different levels and a parent has to decide how much responsibility their child can handle. If a child has to take care of younger siblings, that's a very different matter.

Greenberg notes, "To handle other children, younger children, I would go older. I would probably go to 13, 14 or 15 and, of course, it always depends upon the child."

Here are some things Greenberg says parents should consider to determine if a child can be left alone.

Is your child:

  • Responsible and follows your instructions.
  • Comfortable being alone.
  • Able to get help in an emergency
  • Able to supervise siblings without arguing or
    fighting

Here are ways that you can prepare a child to be left alone

Give older children practice taking caring of siblings while you are at home in another room. Greenberg says, "It's always great to practice ahead of time and you be in another part of the house and let them be working through something together so you get a sense of how they get along when you're not there."

Leave for short periods of time in the beginning.Safe-proof your home with fire alarms and extinguishers.

The majority of gang and violent behavior that kids get into occurs between 3 and 5 p.m., so it's a time to be concerned about leaving children, even older children, home alone.

If you do decide that a child is old enough to stay alone, there is information that parents should make sure the child has.

Tell them

  • Where you are going and for how long
  • Who to call in an emergency
  • When not to open the door
  • What to tell callers
  • How to keep younger children away from the stove and accident-prone areas.

Greenberg notes, "Kids have to know how to dial 911, for example. You have to give them the number where you can be reached and ideally be. If you have a neighbor, leave the kids with at least the phone number of a neighbor."

She says that some parents give their children a routine to follow when they come home from school. For example, they may be told to lock the door when they get home and call a parent at work.