Taking Care of Your Latchkey Kid
In our world of going in early and coming home late, children often have to fend for themselves. Latchkey kids are common. These children may get themselves off to school or come home to an empty house where they remain until their parents return. Cooking, cleaning, homework and -- at times -- supervising younger siblings are just a few of the tasks latchkey kids take on during their time at home alone. Is the latchkey culture helping kids learn responsibility or is it making them grow up too soon?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is estimated that approximately one out of every 10 children in grades 4 through 12 is or has been a latchkey kid. The average amount of time a child is home alone either before or after school is approximately two to three hours. "Most children will come home, grab a snack and either watch television, play video games or get on the Internet," says Mara Berkley, a family therapist and professor in Bristol, R.I. "These children are not being stimulated enough. There is also the danger of inappropriate exposure without adult mediation such as on the Internet, flipping through channels or even afternoon talk shows."
According to Berkley, the negative effects of being a latchkey kid can be a major cause for concern. In addition to the fear of being alone, lack of stimulation and no adult supervision, there may be the feeling of being overwhelmed by the responsibility that accompanies a latchkey situation. "Latchkey kids are often given too much responsibility at too early of an age," Berkley says. "Also, if there is more then one child, the oldest -- who is then responsible for the younger siblings -- may feel overwhelmed by the responsibility. These children do not have the maturity of a parent to be responsible for younger siblings. There are a lot of emotional conflicts that occur between siblings and, in the latchkey situation, there is no grown up to mediate or model."
"My two oldest children were latchkey kids," says Chris Morgan, a stay-at-home-mom from Connecticut. "All these years later, my daughter still holds it against me. During the time my daughter was latchkey, she never let me know just how much it bothered her to come home to an empty house. She tells me now that the only way she could convince herself to go into the house was to get the dog out of the kennel and send her in first."
As a child grows older and reaches the junior high or high school level, parents may become more confident in their ability to be home alone after school. But it is within this age range -- 12 to 17 -- that children may actually have the greatest need for a parent's presence. "This may be a lonely or trying time for kids this age," Berkley says. "When coming home they may have some wonderful news and then have no one to share it with. Or, if something bad happened, there is no one to offer comfort or sympathy or maybe even just to listen. Children who are going through the pressures of the preteen and teen years often times need parental guidance and sometimes, it can't wait."
"I was a latchkey kid and hated it," says Sheri White, a writer from Frederick, Md. "I hated coming home to an empty house with nobody to talk to, especially if I were upset about something that happened that day. Even in high school, I hated it, although I admit I did take advantage of it -- which is another reason why I will be home for my kids after school, even when they're in high school."
According to Berkley, even with a lack of funds or resources, parents can find alternatives to the latchkey situation. "There are alternatives to putting a child in a latchkey situation," Berkley say. "Parents can get together with other parents in their community who are in similar situations. These parents can then work together to devise a schedule or program that works for all involved. These parents could exchange babysitting for other tasks, meals or errands. There are programs at the boys and girls clubs and also at the local YMCA facilities that are free to the public. Also, some school systems have after-school programs to prevent latchkey situations from being needed. Parents just have to look and find a program that works best for them and the children."
For parents who live in communities without a support system for latchkey kids, Berkley suggests enlisting the help of locals to create a program. "Parents should really pressure their children's school to organize parent community groups or parent lists," Berkley says. "If schools would offer lists of who lives near whom, it would be easier for parents to go to each other for help instead of to an outside source or organization. Parents who live in apartment communities could organize an apartment parent association, which would offer another option. The school systems are known to complain when children are having problems -- even if the problem is as simple as not having homework done in a timely manner. But they do not always lend a hand to offer a solution to whatever problems do occur."
Though many parents would prefer their children not stay home alone, the need for income can make the situation unavoidable. "It's a shame to make the parent responsible when our society lets us down," Berkley says. "It's a hard situation. It's tough on both the children and the parents. We don't have the extended families living on the farm anymore. However, it can still be done. With a little time, effort and creativity, parents can find safe alternatives to any latchkey situation."