A child who must spend part of the day unsupervised at home while his parents are working.
The term "latchkey children" was coined by the media to refer to children who wore a housekey around their necks for safekeeping. Other names for this group of children have included "children in self-care," "children of working parents," "unsupervised children," or "children on their own." However, none of these labels offers an unprejudiced description of the situation experienced by children who are at home when a parent is absent.
The need for child care after school is a relatively new phenomena. In the 1960s, only 19% of mothers with school-aged children were employed full-time. By the 1980s, 60% of such mothers were employed and the numbers continue to grow. Despite this trend, society has not yet provided a set of clear expectations about parental supervision and its importance. In the United States, failing to be present to look after a preschool child constitutes child neglect. However, school-age children are increasingly viewed as capable of self-care as they mature. In many states, it is legal to leave children eight years of age and older in self-care. Most laws regarding child neglect make reference to supervision "that fails to meet community standards." However, no clear community standards exist describing when and under what circumstances children can be left alone or in the care of other children.
Surveys suggest that some latchkey children are left alone only for a few minutes each day (e.g., the school bus drops the child off at 3:45 and the parent returns home at 4:00 p.m.) or for only one day a week. In contrast, some children return home, do homework, supervise siblings, fix them dinner, and put them to bed before the parent returns home from work in the evening.
Parents' and children's satisfaction with self-care seems linked to several factors such as (1) the children's age, (2) the parents' belief about working outside the home, (3) parental unconventionality (more conservative parents are less happy with self-care arrangements), and (4) the child's separate social network. In addition, the degree of isolation children experience and the safety of the neighborhood also seem to influence the level of satisfaction with self-care. Some parents supervise by telephone, with their children checking in as soon as they enter the home and periodically calling throughout the afternoon. Other children may have a grandmother, aunt, or neighbor who lives nearby whom the children can contact. The availability of adult company, judgment, and information in part determines the self-care experience, even when there is no adult actually in residence.
Another issue is the safety of the neighborhood. Some children in self-care feel safe and confident in their surroundings. In other neighborhoods, children must lock themselves in and remain indoors for safety's sake. For these children, the absence of a parental earegiver may considerably change their experience.
There are many potential positive as well as negative outcomes of self-care. Children may become more responsible and capable because of self-care. Many take pride in their ability to contribute to the family by managing their own supervision after school. However, in some cases negative outcomes overshadow the positive. Some latchkey children have reported feeling frightened and lonely without adult supervision. However, larger scale, representative studies of children in self-care show that many children are typically not frightened nor unduly lonely during self-care. In fact, many children enjoy their time alone in the house.
When left to themselves, latchkey children appear to make more unhealthy choices than children with more adult supervision. One article in Pediatrics, a prestigious medical magazine, asked, "Are we fattening our children in front of the television?" and the answer was a resounding "yes." Unsupervised children pick foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, which are frequently advertised on television. The unhealthy food choices, in addition to the absence of healthy activity, could happen in any family, but appear to be more likely when the child is left without an adult to monitor the snacks and activities selected.
Older latchkey children are also more likely to become involved in smoking, alcohol, drugs, and early sexual experiences. Interestingly, it is not adult presence, per se, that appears to make a difference. One study showed that adolescents who were required to return home and call the parent were no more likely than adolescents
Childhood injury is an even more dangerous outcome when there is a lack of supervision. Injuries kill more children than the next nine leading causes of death combined, and children may be at greater risk if they are unsupervised. Drowning, being burned by matches, and pedestrian injury after playing in the streets are all major killers of children, injuries that may be preventable with caregiver supervision.
There are many more options to latchkey status than there were even a few years ago. Many schools now have after-school activities such as the "Adventure Clubs" sponsored by the YMCA that offer affordable child care on the school premises. Many day care centers that once focused solely on preschool-age child care are now offering services to bus children from school to the child care center after school. Other communities have arranged coops, whereby several parents exchange days of child care with one another.
As experience continues to grow within the area of self-care, more definitive standards are likely to develop to help parents determine which children will do best in self-care. Currently, the best advice for parents is to role play various high-risk situations that might arise, to ensure that the child knows how to respond (asking the child to act out rather than recite the correct behavior is important). The presence of an adult nearby or by telephone is also helpful. Gradually increasing the amount of responsibility a child assumes at the appropriate rate is not only good parenting, but also the hallmark of self-care.
Kleeberg, Irene dimming. Latchkey Kid. New York: F. Watts, 1985.
Swan, Helen L., and Victoria Houston. Alone After School: A Self-Care Guide for Latchkey Children and Their Parents. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Hansen, Ronald J., and Joyce Price. "As Recent Crimes Show, Children Remain Most Vulnerable Victims." Insight on the News 13, June 9, 1997, pp. 42+.
Ingram, Leah. "Staying Home Alone. (Eight to 12 Years). Parenting 11, March 1997, p. 160.
Changing Families, Challenges, and Opportunities. Columbus, OH: Ohio Cooperative Extension Service, The Ohio State University, 1988.
Home Alone: Tips for Latchkey Children and Their Parents. Wads worth, OH: Fred Productions, 1991.
(One 90-minute videocassette).
University of Missouri