As more people take stay-at-home jobs and jobs which work arounds their school-age children’s schedules, fewer children are true ‘latchkey children’. Having said that, one in eight kids between the ages of 5-11 are left at home alone during July and August.
It’s not all bad, though: latchkey kids exhibit more self-reliance and independence than their non-latchkey peers. Being left alone will teach your child new skills.
For middle-school children, the most common negative emotions associated with being a latchkey kid are fear, loneliness and boredom. For teens, peer pressure is the most common negative emotion. A parent can do a terrific job at addressing these by being aware and taking steps to curtail them.
Before you do anything else, check to find out what your state laws say about leaving children home alone. Most states don’t have hard and fast laws because children mature at different rates. Only a parent knows if their child is mature enough to handle being left alone, regardless of what the state recommends. If there have been an unreasonable number of negative incidents, the child may not be ready, and that’s a good decision.
The next thing you want to do is to make some rules for the child. Children enjoy contributing to planning, so if you ask the child what he believes might be some reasonable rules, it will greatly enhance his willingness to adhere to them if he suggested them. If other rules need to be incorporated, ask him what he thinks would be reasonable, and work with him until you achieve a balanced set of rules. As you discuss the rules, write them down and keep them in a permanent, handy place—for example, tape it on the inside of the cabinet door where the after-school snacks are kept.
Some of the rules we’ve heard:
- Call as soon as you walk in the door.
- Don’t go into the house if you see anything strange (smoke, broken window, open door). Seek help.
- Keep doors and windows locked at all times
- Don’t answer the door (Not even for a cute puppy!)
- Call ______ (handy friend or neighbor) in an emergency at ______ (phone number)
- Do not tell people that you are going to be home alone.
- Stay home. Do not go outside to play.
- Do not use heat appliances—oven, stove, space heater, toaster oven, etc.
- No watching television or the internet until homework is done
- Chores (a list is helpful)
- Using a code word
The important thing is that the child understands the rules and reasons for the rules. Rules also give a child a sense of boundaries and structure, which will make him feel more confident. A code word will also make him feel more confident.
Other things parents can do to help their child include making sure the child knows basic first aid, fire safety, how to call 911 (and convey information appropriately), and how to reach out to an adult in an unusual situation.
A parent can start by leaving the child at home alone for short periods of time to ‘practice’, so the child (and parent!) can work up slowly and gain confidence. Leaving a list of people that the child can call in various situations is also a good idea, as well as teaching the basic household skills, for example, the location of the water main, where the fuse box is located, how to shut off a toilet valve, and what to do if they lose their house key.
A parent can do their part, too:
· Enlist the support of various friends and neighbors to create a web of ‘helpers’ for your child
· Lock up all alcohol, tobacco, poison, medications, firearms.
· keep the keys to the spare car or motorcycle.
· Check in with your child often.
· Arrive home early sometimes when they aren’t expecting you, so you can see what goes on when you aren’t home.
Some parents prefer that the child have a cellphone, or to have a nanny cam so they can watch that everything is going smoothly. Every child is different, so situation will dictate what is appropriate.
A parent can also create a schedule with their child so the child has structure and knows what he is supposed to do with his time. If the child becomes restless or lonely, give them some options of things he can do—working on a hobby, reading, or using Facetime to call Grandma.
Little by little, your latchkey child will learn new skills. Both you and your child will become more confident in his ability to take care of himself. Even though having a child at home alone is not an ideal situation, sometimes circumstances make it necessary. The parent and child can turn it into a tremendous opportunity for the child to gain self-sufficiency and learn to trust himself to deal with life’s dilemmas.
Be safe, everybody!