He no longer fits into the shopping cart, and he's quite capable of slapping together his own peanut butter sandwich. Your friendly neighbor is always home, spying from behind parted curtains, ready to leap from her front door at the first sign of danger - or at least, the first soul who wanders suspiciously onto your street.
Besides, Junior has got your cell-phone number, and he's not afraid to use it.
Stark County (Ohio) Children Services workers point out that there's no law against leaving your kid home alone or even in charge of younger children.Their brochure says so, but then follows up with the warning: "However, parents are responsible for the safety and protection of their children. Use common sense before making this important decision. Think about the risks your child could face while left unattended."
What can go wrong?
The brochure has plenty of possibilities, including ingesting poison, wandering into the street, falling out of a window, quarreling with siblings, playing with matches or guns, not to mention "overlooking an emergency situation."
"What does your child do when somebody comes to the door and tells your child, 'It's an emergency'? What happens if your smoke detector goes off? I think parents often don't realize how many issues arise," said Beth Wildman, associate professor of psychology at Kent State University. She said child predators use creative means to get a child to leave with them. "Criminals are very smart. We don't always prepare our children for that."
Kathryn Kerns, another Kent psychology professor who specializes in child development, said that whether you leave your child home alone may also depend on the neighborhood.
"Those who seem to be at most risk are lower-income children in urban neighborhoods," she said. Although it may seem good that so many people are nearby, the city also leaves ample "opportunities to get into anti-social activities."
Chris Beers, community coordinator for Stark County Children Services, said that between 3 and 5 p.m. when "no one's home just yet is the time when a lot of mischief is started."
But it may be good for the child, too.
"Parents frequently report that self-care provides benefits to their children, including development of personal responsibility and independence and the opportunity to learn basic survival skills, such as food preparation, responding to emergencies and distinguishing unfamiliar situations from dangerous ones," according to the Web site for the National Association of School Psychologists, www.nasponline.org.
Kerns said that although children of single-parent households "tend to do more self-care in terms of household responsibilities" than children of two-parent families, she isn't so sure the latchkey situation ensures a child will be more self-confident or more responsible.
"I don't know of evidence that it actually enhances independence," she said.
Denise Branson-Smith, supervisor for the assessment unit of Children Services, said that the ages listed in her agency's brochure serve as a guideline, but only the parent really knows for certain whether it's safe to leave his or her youngster home alone.
"You know the maturity level of your child," she said. "You may have a 12-year-old who's really mature and you can leave that child at home with emergency numbers. Then you may have a 16-year-old who may not be OK to leave alone."
Power-play problems could arise, too.
Branson-Smith recommended that children close in age who are left home alone should be instructed that "no one person is in charge. You're in charge of yourself."
Children capable of being left without adult supervision should always be armed with a list of emergency numbers, including the adult who left them alone, the neighbors, relatives and anyone else they may need to contact in the event of an emergency, she said. They should have established house rules, such as don't cook, don't answer the door and never tell strangers that no adult is home.
"It's always good to say to the child, 'I'm going to the mall and I'm going to be gone about two hours,' " she said, adding that giving the child a time frame may lessen any fear.
But most importantly, she said, "If your child's afraid, don't leave them."
Then again, if there's really so much of a concern that Junior can't handle a couple hours alone while his parents navigate a course through bargain-hungry holiday shoppers, perhaps he could grab his allowance money and join in on the Christmas shopping spree.
The National Association of School Psychologists advises the following:
"Between 10 and 12 years, many children demonstrate sufficient maturity in behavior and judgment to spend some time without direct adult supervision. However, children younger than the fourth grade usually lack the maturity and skills to care for themselves without adult supervision and are more likely to experience negative consequences of this child care arrangement."
The Stark County Children Services brochure lists the following "supervision guidelines":
- Ages 6 and younger: Children 6 and younger should never be left without direct supervision, even for a short period of time. They should never be permitted to cook.
- Ages 7-10: Rarely, if ever, should children from 7 to 10 be left unattended. Those who exhibit greater maturity and dependability may be left alone for a very short time, usually 20 minutes or less. Generally, a child younger than 10 should not be permitted to cook while unsupervised.
- Ages 11-14: Children between 11 and 14 generally do not need a sitter if the parent is absent for a few hours. However, if the parent is gone regularly for long periods, as in the case of a regular work schedule, adult supervision is advisable.
- Ages 15 and older: Most children do not need a sitter by the time they reach age 15. Some children in this age range still need direct supervision, however - particularly if they exhibit developmental delays or require specialized care of any kind.