According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.1 million children are routinely left to care for themselves before or after school while parents work. The number of “latchkey” children may be much higher, perhaps three times that figure by some estimates. Today, with single-parent households or both parents working, the number of latchkey children is rising.
The effects of giving 6- to 13-year-old children the responsibility for caring for themselves are widely debated. Some studies show “latchkeys” develop many positive characteristics, such as independence, resourcefulness, and a sense of responsibility. They also suggest that this responsibility helps children mature faster and take care of themselves earlier. Other studies indicate that loneliness and depression are likely to develop in those left on their own for extended periods of time. Obviously, further studies are needed.
What To Consider
Whether or not your own child is ready to stay alone depends on a variety of factors. Because maturity rates vary, some children are better equipped than their peers to take care of themselves. (Refer to the self-quiz for children below to help determine their “readiness” and “comfort” regarding staying home alone.) Parents should also consider the relative safety of the neighborhood and what types of help would be available to a child in the event of minor, as well as major emergencies. Investigate community resources for latchkey children, such as hotlines, classes, and neighborhood “safe house” programs.
Other helpful guidelines:
- Prepare your children to successfully take care of themselves by practicing emergency procedures.
- Teach your children how to prepare simple snacks and clean up after themselves.
- Set a schedule for homework or chores.
- Encourage problem-solving by asking them to propose solutions to situations which may arise.
- Help your children voice their concerns and let them know that alternate arrangements can be made if self-care is not working.
A Self-Quiz For Children
The following self-quiz for children can help you determine your child’s readiness to stay home alone:
- I feel safe at home.
- I know what to do in an emergency.
- I make good choices on how to spend free time.
- I am usually on time for school.
- I usually cooperate with my brother(s) and sister(s).
- I usually follow family rules.
- I know when to ask for help.
- I can talk to my parents about how I’m feeling and problems I have.
- I usually complete household chores on time.
- I feel proud of the way I can take care of myself.
Things about being on my own that I like:________________________________________________
Things about being on my own that I dislike:
Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance. He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”