When Nancy Heermans' live-in babysitter left, she had to choose: Find another sitter, or allow her two oldest daughters to care for themselves after school. The girls "very much wanted to give it a try," says Ms. Heermans, a Washington, D.C., lawyer. So when Gretchen was in the eighth grade and Kate in the sixth, Heermans let them come home on the bus to an empty house.
So far, the arrangement has worked well for the family, and the girls, now 13 and nearly 15, love their freedom. But "it does give kids this age the opportunity to get into trouble," Heermans acknowledges.
For Heermans, her close-knit community plays a large role in her decision to leave the girls on their own, in what is known as self-care. "We have a very close neighborhood - everyone knows everyone, and I'd hear it from all sides if there was a problem," she says.
Child-care experts may dispute the wisdom of self-care, as well as the ideal ages for allowing children to take on this responsibility. But there is little disagreement over the fact that numerous American families count on their children to care for themselves for some period during the week.
According to Beth Miller, research associate at the School Age Child Care Project of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in Wellesley, Mass., approximately 5 million children between the ages of 5 and 13 are in self-care at some point during a typical workweek.
If children are left without parental supervision, a community support system like the Heermans', along with parental awareness of children's schedules, is essential, experts say.
"There should always be a safety net, even for 14- and 15-year-olds - someone they can call on in an emergency," says Jay Settoon, Director of Programs for the Louisiana Council on Child Abuse in Baton Rouge, La.
"A mature nine year-old can do real well at home. But if that child goes out of the house in an emergency and can't find anyone to connect with - that's severe neglect," Mr. Settoon says.
When children have adults nearby who know that the kids are home alone, that safety net encompasses much more than emergency situations, according to Jean Richardson, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
In several studies, Dr. Richardson found a direct correlation between the number of hours California eighth-graders spent on their own and their likelihood to abuse cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol - statistics that raise questions about self-care, especially when considered along with other studies linking hours kids spend alone to higher crime rates.
But Richardson found the safety-net concept to be an alleviating factor: Kids were much less likely to abuse substances if they thought their parents knew where they were.
"It's not the characteristics of the child - their ethnicity, gender, status in school - but what the parent is doing. Does the parent call home - check in with the kids; does the parent know where the kid is?" Richardson says.
If a child must be left under self-care, "parents must do whatever they can to supervise in absentia; someone needs to know where that child is," she says.
For Molly Beacham, that means calling her husband's parents, who live next door to her in Baton Rouge, to alert them that she is leaving her seven- and nine-year-old boys alone. She also goes through the routine: Don't answer the phone; don't answer the door; stay inside; and no friends over.
Mrs. Beacham admits her kids are young, but considers age less of a factor than being aware of what they're ready to handle. She also has the security of grandparents nearby.
"Usually I have to do something like run to the grocery for a half-hour and the other begs not to come," she explains.
"So I extend a privilege. If I come home and find he has a friend over, then that's it. With kids, you're constantly testing their abilities and your own," Beacham says.
Most parenting experts look at factors other than age when judging if a self-care situation is appropriate.
"You've got to look at it in context: Are the kids left with developmentally appropriate activities and access to an adult, or are they roaming the streets?" asks Dr. Miller of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
For Joanne Bonfield, who is considering allowing her eight-year-old daughter, Brittany, to stay home alone at times, preparation is key. "We're beginning to groom her to think in these directions," Ms. Bonfield says.
"I give her theoreticals: 'What do you do if I'm in the shower and someone you don't know comes to the door and asks to come in - says he's a friend of mine? What do you do if you dial for help and the phone doesn't work?' " says Bonfield, who handles constituent affairs for Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster.
Bonfield adds that her value system is integral to her decision about when to start leaving Brittany on her own: "I want her to be independent in the sense of learning to use sound judgment. When I see good judgment calls, then I can loosen the tether."
Most parents without supervised arrangements for their children "don't feel good about leaving their kids under self-care," Miller says.
This concern is borne out by some studies showing worker productivity declining at 3 p.m. as parents worry about kids getting home and being alone, notes Olay Eelah with the New Orleans-based group Agenda for Children.
Which is why Heermans demands that as soon as they get home from school, her daughters call her at work. "And if I don't get that call when I expect it, you better believe I'm on the phone finding out why," she says.