With each call from home, Cheryl Holds wondered if her 12-year-old was OK. Was he scared? Did he remember not to answer the door? Did he forget that metal and microwave ovens don't mix?
The Monday in early August represented a new era in the Holds household, with Cheryl's son spending a few hours home alone. It was a trial run for the fall, when he will return from school alone or with his younger sister until his parents return from work.
"He's just getting too old to have somebody watch him," said Holds, who lives in a Minneapolis suburb. "He has been telling me that he's ready, but I just want to make sure."
The home-alone question has been a tough one for parents whose children reach the age -- often 10 or 11 -- when they seek independence and burn out on child care and day camps. Many families have confronted the issue this summer due to school vacations, but the sluggish economy may have pushed them to consider home-alone arrangements earlier than planned because they can't afford costly summer activities, or they find themselves working different hours.
"Given the stress of today's work and the economy, it's just making family choices more and more challenging," said Karen Fogolin of the Minnesota Childcare Resource and Referral Network.
Current census figures won't be available until next year, but data show that the number of kids home alone rose during the last recession. In 2002, 15 percent of children ages 9 to 11 with employed parents were in "self-care''; the number dropped to 11 percent in 2005, when the economy had recovered.
The dilemma appears as prevalent in Minnesota as in any other state. A 2009 survey by the Afterschool Alliance estimated that 54 percent of Minnesota's middle schoolers take care of themselves after school. The national average in the survey was 30 percent.
For Holds, the cost of after-school programs was a "big deal," especially with her son tiring of those programs anyway. "It's not cool anymore when you're in middle school," she lamented.
Other parents, too, say the cost of patching together their kids' summers with weekly camps can be prohibitive.
Still, Holds and other parents said their first priority was determining if their children wanted to be home alone and whether they were mature enough.
Fogolin agreed that maturity is a more important indicator than age and that parents shouldn't be swayed by what other parents do.
"They need to be sure their child is really ready to be home alone," Fogolin said. "There's nothing worse than going to work and worrying about your child all day. Some children do not want to be home alone even when they are 13, 14 years old. ... If they're not comfortable, that's a red flag and parents need to pay attention to that."
Minnesota doesn't have a legal age limit at which kids can be left home alone. However, Hennepin County has age-related guidelines that its child welfare workers consult when deciding whether to investigate a complaint of inadequate supervision of a child.
The county investigates if children 7 or younger are left home at all; if children 8 to 10 are left for more than three hours; if children 11 to 13 are left for more than 12 hours, and if children 14 to 15 are left more than 24 hours.
Other counties used to have different approaches, but agreed three years ago to adopt these same standards, said Pam Orren, a child protection intake worker for Hennepin County. Officials for Hennepin and Dakota counties said they haven't seen an increase in complaints of children being inadequately supervised.
The key to keeping kids safe is planning with them before they are left at home, said Kathleen Olson, a family relations educator with the University of Minnesota Extension. Parents can even role-play scenarios with their kids -- helping them to practice preparing food, to not answer the door for strangers, or to react to unusual situations such as power failures, tornado warnings or misplaced keys.
"I always say having children home alone is more work than if you are taking them to school-age child care," she said, "because you really need to prepare with them and you really need to communicate with them."
Home-alone classes such as one offered earlier this month by Minnetonka Community Education can help. Seventeen children ages 8 to 13 discussed the basics of being home alone, from snacks to first aid.
Organizers have added more sessions each year because of the course's popularity.
Rick Moore's 8-year-old daughter is rarely home alone -- not with 18- and 13-year-old sisters around. But lately she has wanted to stay home instead of going with her parents on errands or grocery trips.
The class seemed like a good way to reinforce the safety tips she already hears from her parents. "Sometimes it's more effective when it comes from a third party," Moore said.
Holds required her son to take the course, as well, and will schedule him for a baby-sitting class before he watches his sister after school.
"I was baby-sitting at 11 and 12, but with kids these days it's a different world," she said. "I just want to make sure he has the tools and confidence."
The first test on Aug. 9 seemed successful if uneventful while Holds was at work. After walking the family dog, her son got bored, called for permission, and went next door to a friend's house.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744