Latchkey children is a term that's often used to describe children who must stay at home alone taking care of themselves for some part of the day. Usually, they're the children of working parents. Experts estimate that from 5 to 12 million children between the ages of 5 and 13 are at home alone for some period of time every day. In many cases, their parents either cannot afford child care, or none is available.
These children are about three times more likely to be involved in accidents, engage in delinquent behavior, or be victimized than those supervised by adults. Parents who must leave their children home alone on a regular basis are often gravely concerned with not only their ability to handle potentially dangerous situations but how they cope with routine activities.
Some children enjoy caring for themselves and happily accept the added responsibilities. Others will occasionally be lonely, bored, or scared. However, for all children the experience can be an opportunity for parents to discuss all aspects of safety and crime prevention, as well as build their children's self-esteem, confidence, and competence. Studies show that a close relationship with parents decreases or moderates any negative effects of self-care.
To promote self-care skills, parents should focus on setting rules and limits, increasing levels of responsibility, and communicating basic safety information. If children understand why they must be left alone and what they may and may not do, their risk of injury and victimization will be greatly decreased. Discuss the routines they are to followhousehold chores, pets to tend, homework, family policies on visiting friends or having friends visit them, and what to do when the phone or doorbell rings. If you won't be home at your regular time, let your children know.
The following items are important for parents to teach their children:
- To memorize their name and address, including city and state.
- To memorize their phone number, including area code.
- How to use both push-button and rotary dial phones to make emergency, local, and long distance calls, and how to reach the operator.
- To check in with you or a neighbor immediately after arriving home.
- To never enter your home if a door is ajar or a window is broken.
- How to work your home's door and window locks, and to always lock them when they are at home alone.
- How to answer the doorbell and phone when they're home alone.
- Not to go into anyone else's home without your permission.
- To avoid walking or playing alone.
- That if they feel they're being followed, either on foot or by a car, to run to the nearest public place, neighbor, or "Safe House."
- That a stranger is someone neither you nor they know well.
- To tell you if anyone asks them to keep a secret, offers them gifts or money, or asks to take their picture.
- To tell you if something happened while they were away from you that made them feel uncomfortable in any way.
Ensuring that your children know and understand the items on this list will help turn their latchkey hours into a positive learning experience that builds a sense of responsibility and confidence.