In just a few weeks, school will be out, forcing many parents to make alternative plans for child care.

While it may be a no-brainer that young children will be left with baby sitters or sent to day-cares or camps, many parents stress over the decision to let kids stay home alone. Some have speculated that the economy will force more kids to spend the summer on their own.

"We probably would be thinking about this anyway even if money weren't tight," says Penny Goodwin of Summerville, mother of a 12-year-old. "Once kids reach a certain age, even if they still like camp or wherever they go, they want to try out their independence."

For many kids, that happens around 12 or 13.

"My son started asking to stay home alone a few months ago," she says. "So I started leaving him alone for short times while I run errands, but I never thought about leaving him at home while I'm at work until he brought it up. We're still thinking about it."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 7 million of the nation's 38 million children ages 5-14 are left home alone on a regular basis. About 600,000 5- to 8-year-olds fend for themselves, and 3.4 million children are under the care of siblings.

The national average home alone time is six hours per week, and higher-income parents are more likely to leave kids unsupervised, according to the Census. Statistics also indicate that unsupervised kids are at greater risk of accidents and of harm and are more apt to commit crimes.

Deciding when your child is ready to stay alone is a judgment call. There are no laws about it, but most folks agree that children under 10 should not be left to fend for themselves, nor should older children who are impulsive or immature.

"Ultimately, it's up to the parents to decide when their child is ready," says Charleston family counselor Virginia Griffin. "I've seen some very responsible 9- or 10-year-olds and some very irresponsible 14-year-olds."

Here are some things to consider, according to KidsHealth, a Web site that is part of The Nemours Foundation Center for Children's Health Media:

--Does your child show signs of responsibility with things such as homework, household chores and following directions?

--How does your child handle unexpected situations? How calm does your child stay when things don't go his or her way?

--Does your child understand and follow rules?

--Can your child understand and follow safety measures?

--Does your child make good judgments about what kinds of risks to take?

--Does your child know basic first-aid procedures?

--Does your child follow your instructions about staying away from strangers?

--How long would it take you to get home?

--Do you have neighbors who could help in an emergency?

Before leaving your child home alone, you should discuss possible scenarios that could arise and make a few practice runs. Ask your child how she would handle certain scenarios to gauge if she's ready to stay alone.

"A full workday is a long time for a youngster to be alone," says Griffin. "You should work up to it by leaving your child for shorter periods first."

You may find that staying alone is not for your child.

"One night, I ran to the drugstore and left my daughter home alone," says Catherine Brown of Summerville. "She quickly realized that she didn't like being home alone when it was dark outside."

Ditto thunderstorms.

Instead, she has decided to have an older teen stay with her daughter this summer.

If your child is staying alone, set rules about things such as the television, computer, microwave or stove and telephone. Decide whether you'll let your child have friends over or go to friends' houses, what he's allowed to eat and what chores should be done. Make plans about how often you'll check in and which of you will do the calling.

Additionally, KidsHealth suggests locking up items that can be a health risk, no matter how much you trust your child. That includes alcohol, prescription medications, over-the-counter medications that could cause problems if taken in excess, guns, tobacco, car keys, lighters and matches.

Know that you are making some concessions by allowing your child to stay home alone. He is more likely to be sedentary, for instance.

"I was afraid my son would sit and watch TV — probably shows I wouldn't normally let him watch — and eat junk food every day, all summer," says Faith Cummins of Charleston. "So we decided to mix staying at home with going to day camp. It's sort of a nice compromise."

Finally, children who are ready to be left alone may not be ready to be left with siblings.

"If your children can't get through dinner without an argument, you probably shouldn't expect them to stay together peacefully all day," says Griffin. "If you leave them home alone while you are at work, at the very least, you will probably spend a portion of your day moderating arguments over the phone. At the worst, somebody could get seriously injured."

However, if your child is ready and the situation is handled well, leaving him home alone can be a good experience that teaches him things such as self-assurance and independence.

"I figure he'll need to know how to take care of himself soon enough," Goodwin says. "And he seems ready, so why not start now?"