In many cases, the arrangement works well for families who are facing tough economic times or when it is only for a short period of time. But child experts also warn that "latchkey kids" are the ones who are most apt to get into trouble when home alone, as there are opportunities to initiate inappropriate online communications, watch television shows you would never allow, experiment with drugs or alcohol to pass the time, or even to put themselves in harm's way with strangers.
With all that said, if you choose to allow your child to stay home alone, experts recommend that kids entering middle school can most likely handle the responsibility effectively. If you plan to begin allowing your child to stay home alone after school, introduce the arrangement as a phase-in process, where you gradually allow increased opportunities for your child to demonstrate readiness. For example, you might try running a quick errand or going to the grocery store and ask your child to check in with you every 15 minutes by phone. Knowing that your child can safely and accurately call you and talk with you is a first step in the right direction. From there, you can gradually increase the time home alone until you both are comfortable with the situation.
Parents should also establish a check list that your child must follow. For example, you will most likely want your child to call you the minute he is home so you don't worry he got in the house safely. You'll want to have a written set of safety rules (such as doors locked, don't answer the phone unless it is a parent or approved family member, no unsupervised computer use, and to get all homework done). You'll want to set the ground rules, and then make sure your child understands them and agrees to them. Of greatest importance is not allowing your child to answer the door, play outside in the front yard or talk on the phone (which could also tie up the phone line in the event of an emergency), and to never tell anyone that he is home alone.
You'll also want to establish specific rules about food. You will probably feel safest if you don't allow your child to cook any food in the oven or stovetop (microwave is typically okay). You don't want to worry about accidental cooking fires or burners getting left on.
Parents should know that the home-alone trial stage can be misleading. The arrangement typically goes extremely well with both parent and child, often because both parties very much want the situation to be a success. The danger comes when a child has become quite comfortable with being home alone and begins to crave even greater independence. Boredom can also breed the temptation to have a friend over, go outside in the front yard, or take a quick walk. That's when the potential for danger or trouble escalates.
Experts warn that the tween and early teen years are when most parents typically agree to letting a child stay home alone. However, adolescence is also entering the picture and with it the desire to test rules and challenge authority. Because of the increased risks, many schools and city recreation programs have after-school activities (either for a very minimum cost or even free) to avoid tween/teens from going home to an empty house.
If you choose to let your child stay home alone, Keep that in mind that you'll need to keep your guard up and be extra vigilent in looking for clues that important rules have not been broken while the parents are away. Kids often capitalize on the fact that working parents come home stressed and exhausted, and aren't careful in checking for details about whether homework was done and that all rules were followed.
Finally, try and find a neighbor who is aware your child will be home alone. Ask him to keep a discreet eye on your home (and your kid) and to call you if any no-no behaviors or actions are noted.