STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. In Your Health today, some television sets can be dangerous for kids. And it's something parents rarely think about. First, though, we go to another concern. At what age can you safely leave your kids home alone? NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: So if you look to the law for guidance, there are just a few states that set a minimum age for leaving kids home alone. Lieutenant Paul Starks of the Montgomery County, Maryland police explains his state has a law.
Lieutenant PAUL STARKS (Montgomery County Police Department, Maryland): The person has to be eight years old or older to be left alone.
AUBREY: That's roughly second grade, which seems really young to many parents, and, as it turns out, far from the norm, according to the findings of a University of Michigan poll. Here's pediatrician Matt Davis.
Dr. MATT DAVIS (Pediatrician, University of Michigan): We found, first of all, that parents said that 11 to 12 years old was an appropriate age for children to be home alone.
AUBREY: Ninth-grader Brian Ott commutes on the D.C. metro from his school to home in the afternoons. He says he was about 12 when his mom let him try the latchkey experiment.
Mr. BRIAN OTT (Student): It'd be in the afternoon. My mom came home by around, like, 5:30, 6:00. So it wasn't really for that long. It wasn't like till nine at night. I didn't have to like feed myself dinner or anything.
AUBREY: And Brian says his parents set some clear ground rules to keep him on track: always a phone call to his mom when he arrived home, no friends allowed in the house when his parents weren't there, and he had to finish homework before playing video games or watching TV.
So how does his mom, Margie Ott, gauge whether he can handle this freedom and complete his schoolwork?
Ms. MARGIE OTT: I know on the basis of his grades that he is. So if his grades were going down, I'd have to take some of that away.
AUBREY: She says Brian didn't go from structured aftercare to afternoons alone all at once. She was really anxious about it and talked to lots of parents of his friends who felt nervous, too, even though they knew at some point it was inevitable. Her strategy was to phase in time alone beginning with just one afternoon a week. She also set up a few trust-but-verify measures in the house, such as setting passcodes on the home computers with Internet access.
Ms. OTT: I did catch him once changing the password. And I changed it back. You know, when he went on Facebook I said, ok, you can go on Facebook, but you have to let me be your friend.
AUBREY: Child development experts say Ott is doing many of the right things. She's keeping open lines of communication with her son, clearly articulating her expectations, and also realizing that part of an adolescent's job is to push back.
William Coleman is a pediatrician at the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina. He says the conundrum for many parents is that they want to trust their kids to be home alone, yet many recall from their own teen years that inevitable tug towards the forbidden.
Dr. WILLIAM COLEMAN (Pediatrician, Center for Development and Learning, University of North Carolina): They're looking for trouble, and exploring and pushing boundaries. That's normal.
AUBREY: But Coleman says it's important for parents to see that there's a lot of variability among kids. Some will push the boundaries in reckless, dangerous ways. Others will try more harmless revolts, such as changing computer passcodes. Either way, Coleman says the developing brain tends to get a little reward for risky business.
Dr. COLEMAN: Getting that rush of adrenaline and then talking about it to your friends - boy, do you know what I did last night when mom was out?
AUBREY: Coleman says the point he's trying to make here is there's no one right age to begin leaving your tween or teen home alone. The question parents should ask themselves is: Where's my kid on that scale of risk-taking and responsibility?
The University of Michigan's Matt Davis says his advice for parents is to start with some trial runs for brief amounts of time.
Dr. DAVIS: Let's say half an hour or an hour at most where they may leave their kids home alone, and then come back and debrief about it and see whether there were particular concerns or safety issues that came up.
AUBREY: Simples steps such as knowing neighbors' phone numbers and reviewing emergency procedures are important. And it's also good for parents to establish logical consequences for good and bad behavior in their absence.
Ninth-grader Brian Ott says the more he shows his mom that he can do it, the more freedom she gives him.
Mr. OTT: Because when I started staying home alone, I wasn't allowed to leave the house until my mom got home. Now I can, if I, like, tell her, Mom, I'm going to be out of the house.
AUBREY: Margie Ott says the line she routinely finds herself saying to Brian is…
Ms. OTT: I want to be part of your life. I don't want to control your life, but I want to know what's going on.
AUBREY: Ott says know that she's finally comfortable with Brian staying home alone, she's got to start all over again. Her fifth grader is now begging to do it, too.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.