Suzanne Tobias

When should a child be left home alone?

Whenever local districts cancel school because of extreme weather, I can count on at least a few calls or e-mails with a perennial parenting question:

How old is old enough to stay home alone?

First, the facts: Kansas law does not specify how old a child must be to stay home alone. Child abuse statutes outlaw neglect that puts a child in danger — including, potentially, leaving a young child unsupervised — but there is no legal definition of an unsupervised child.

That means no hard-and-fast rules, which means no easy answers for parents trying to make that call.

Not surprisingly, experts differ. The National Safe Kids Campaign recommends that no child under 12 be left home alone. The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services says 10 or 11 is a reasonable age, depending on a child's maturity level. Many states and cities have guidelines — not laws — that mention ages ranging from 9 to 12.

Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids," a book, blog and anti-helicopter-parent movement, argues that most parents are unreasonably paranoid and that most kids could use a little more freedom. The issue, she writes, "is not whether a child is left alone, or even what age, but under what circumstances."

Indeed. Age shouldn't be the only factor in deciding whether your child is ready to stay home alone. Your 14-year-old may not be able to deal with an emergency; your 9-year-old could be extremely mature and able to handle it.

Some things to consider:

* Kids with developmental delays, behavioral disabilities or emotional problems should not be left alone. Nor should any child who is impulsive or fearful of being left alone.

* Leave your child for short periods at first — just five or 10 minutes. As they prove themselves capable, make it for longer periods of time. (So an eight-hour snow day probably isn't a good "first run" for staying home alone.)

* Leave a phone number where you can be reached. Call home occasionally to check on your child.

* Prepare your child for staying home alone. Think of possible scenarios and ways he or she should handle them. Discuss big ones — fire, tornado, intruder, etc. — but don't forget minor things, such as an overflowing toilet.

* Be specific in discussing your expectations and how you would like your child to use her time. For example: Is the TV allowed? Should she answer the phone? Can she use the computer? Go outside? Go to friends' or neighbors' houses?

* Consider enrolling your child in a personal safety class. The Red Cross offers a one-day baby-sitter's training course for children 11 and older that teaches how to handle emergencies, prevent accidents and administer first aid and rescue breathing. For more information or to enroll, call 316-219-4060.

Most experts agree that children should not be left alone for extended periods or overnight until they are well into their teen years.

Above all, a child should demonstrate maturity and good judgment — an ability to think clearly and quickly to solve problems or deal with a crisis. Exactly when that is, parents, depends on your good judgment.