Today, about one third of all school-age children, an estimated five million between ages five and 13, are so-called latchkey children - kids who care for themselves while parents are at work. In some Phoenix schools, 50 percent of the 3rd and 4th graders are latchkey kids. One third of all complaints to child welfare agencies involve latchkey children.
There is conflicting opinion about the effects of leaving children on their own. Some experts advise against leaving children under the age of 12 on their own. But some children under 12 may be all right on their own for several hours. The two biggest fears facing a young latchkey child are an encounter with an intruder and a parent who doesn't come home on time.
Every child is different, so the maturity and personality of your child should be an important consideration. You need to assess your child's needs and explore the various options available to you. If your child is not mature enough to stay alone, try to arrange for some form of supervision.
Seek Alternatives to Self-Care
Find out if there are school-age child care programs or after-school activities for children. If there are no school-age child care programs or activities available, see if your PTO, school or place of worship can get such a program started or sponsor after-school activities.
See if grandparents or other relatives could take care of your child during the non-school hours. Hire a babysitter to come to your home or, to keep the costs down, try joining with other working parents to share the costs of paying a responsible stay-at-home mother or other responsible adult to watch the children after school.
Talk to your employer. Many companies offer on-site or off-site child care centers for employees' children. Other companies offer referral services and child care expense benefits for employees. Inquire about starting a flex-time schedule so that you can be home with your children after school.
Check to see if there is an information referral service in your area.
Practice Good Parent-Child Communication
If you can't locate good child care, you may have to consider having your child stay at home alone for a short period of time each day. This choice should be made only with the understanding that parents, whether physically present or not, are still in charge. This will create a positive experience for your child, help assure the child's safety and lessen your worry as a parent. To do this takes planning and good communication with your child.
Consider whether your children can usually be relied on to obey rules, finish homework, complete chores. Are they afraid of the dark and extremely afraid of unexplained noises? Have they developed the judgment necessary to turn off the TV and begin their homework or to say no when peers want to do something dangerous?
Encourage children to share their feelings and thoughts about being alone. Ask such questions as "Do you feel frightened or lonely when you think about staying alone?" and "Would you prefer to be alone, with a sitter or in an after school program?"
Initiate these conversations often and take your child's comments seriously.
Make your family expectations and values known to your children. Explain that you expect them to abide by the house rules when they are by themselves.
Remember that even when parents are able to find suitable before and after school care for their children, plans sometimes break down. Children get sick or they insist they are too old for babysitters, or too embarrassed to be taken to daycare. Babysitters get sick, too, or find different employment. Programs are cancelled during bad weather or during holidays and vacations. Parents sometimes must work late. The result is that, even when care has been arranged, children may end up on their own unless there is planning and backup for these emergencies or changes. Even with planning, children may end up alone at some time, so all children need to be prepared. Whether children are going to be home alone regularly or only occasionally, you need to teach basic safety rules in a non-threatening way. This will keep a child safe and improve the child's self-image as a capable person who knows how to deal with a potential problem.
It's important that children feel safe in their homes. Parents can reduce the fear of intruders by creating a "safe room" in the home. This can be done by installing a deadbolt lock on the door of a room and putting a phone inside. On a day to day basis keep a key outside in case someone gets locked in.
Check to make sure your children know the following:
- Their full name, address and phone number.
- Your full name, the exact name of the place where you work and your work phone number.
- How to dial 9-1-1.
- How to carry a key so it is secure but out of sight. Never have a name and address on the key.
- Never go into the house if a door is ajar or a window broken.
- Lock the door on entering and keep doors and windows locked.
- What to do if they think they are being followed.
- Check in with you by telephone or report to a neighbor at a regularly scheduled time.
- Avoid walking or playing alone on the way home from school.
- How to answer the telephone without letting callers know they are alone.
- What to do in case of a fire.
Find Out About Support Services
Check to see if your community offers backup services. If not, consider getting your Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) involved in starting them.
Ask the PTO or principal if there is a block parent program in your neighborhood. In such programs, carefully selected adults are given signs to place in their windows that signal to children walking home that they can come to that person's home for help in an emergency. If there is such a program in your area, be sure that children know about it.
Another resource available for latchkey children is "Phone Friend." Phone Friend is organized by the Association for Supportive Child Care to talk to children who might be scared, lonely or in distress. Trained volunteers ask only for the child's name, age, school and town to maintain confidentiality (unless the child is in immediate danger. Then he or she is told to hang up and dial 9-1-1 immediately). This service is available every school day morning from 7:00-8:30am, then every afternoon from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. at 602-253-9099. Phone Friend also has a TTY line for deaf and hard of hearing children: 480-736-2627.
Phone Friend is funded by The United Way, the Glendale From The Heart Fund, The Child Abuse Prevention License Plate Fund, Best Buy, the City of Tempe, Intel, Clothes Helping Kids and the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families.
Find Out About Support Services
One of the most important tasks for parents is to teach responsibility and self-discipline to their children. Help your children develop judgment and self-confidence by playing "what-if" games. Ask your children what they would do if:
- The power failed and the lights went out.
- Siblings didn't arrive home on schedule or hurt themselves.
- A friend asked them to come over to see a new toy.
- An adult asked to come into the home when you are not there.
- A fire should break out.
Practice and talk about what may happen, what limits are, and what promises mean. Remind them that you or another adult you designate are a phone call away if they are uncertain. Allow children to be a part of making house rules. They are less likely to break rules they've helped establish. Recognize that some rules work when children are young, but as they get older children need and want more independence.
Make a schedule. Even an hour of time alone can overwhelm a child who is unprepared. Show how to divide time into slots for specific activities, allowing for "musts" and relaxing time, too. For example, 3:30-3:40 p.m. call Mom or Dad; 3:40-4 p.m. change clothes and have a snack; 4-5 p.m. homework; 5-5:15 p.m. set table for dinner; 5:l5 p.m.- until Mom or Dad gets home, work on crafts or read a book.
Fill in a daily calendar for young children, and graduate to weekly, monthly and seasonal calendars as children get older. Review each day's schedule at breakfast or the night before. Help children learn responsibility by being responsible yourself. Call if you are going to be late. Be sure your children know you are concerned. They need to know you think of them while you are away. Show that you care by asking to see completed homework, chores and projects. Compliment your child on jobs well done. Make plans to spend time together during the evenings and on weekends. Let your children know that you're happy to see them at the end of the day.
Suggest Constructive Activities
"There's nothing to do!" is a familiar complaint in most households with children. Place reminders such as "Read me" on appropriate books and magazines or list "Really Great Things to Do When There's Nothing to Do" to help children learn resourcefulness.
In an ideal world, all communities would provide safe, affordable care for those children whose parents are at work. But in the real world, this is not the case. In many areas, after-school programs simply do not exist, and where available, may be too expensive for many parents. Therefore, many families have "kids with keys." To make this a safer, more positive experience parents must remember that they are still in charge. Communicate with your children. Plan for productive use of time and work with your children to establish codes of conduct. Teach responsibility and self-discipline and be available after work to help your children with problems. Finally, provide careful safety training and prepare for emergencies.
All parents must take their responsibility to their children seriously and consider their children's needs as they meet their work obligations. Whether physically present or not, parents must remain in charge.