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The result? Roughly 10 million elementary school kids, plus an estimated 50,000 preschoolers, come home from school to empty houses. Leaving older children home unattended leaves working parents worrying, guilty and hoping for the best. In fact, an increase in employee accidents and errors occur around 3 p.m., when school lets out and working parents grow restless, waiting in suspense for the phone call signaling their children made it inside the house.
As a onetime father of a latchkey child (my child is now 34 years old and fledged) and as a college instructor and practicing school psychologist for over 32 years, I've talked with a legion of mothers and fathers of "home alone" kids. If your child must get home before you do, be sure to set some rules and guidelines. I'd like to share some tips what I've learned from parents of latchkey kids: three master key strategies and fourteen specific, passkey tips to unlock the door to successful latchkey kid parenting.
STRATEGY I: EVALUATE IF YOUR CHILD?S DEVELOPMENTALLY READY TO BE LEFT HOME ALONE
Tip No. 1- Adhere to recommended guidelines set forth by children?s service and police agencies throughout your state. I contacted these agencies in four states, and found the guidelines to be strikingly similar. Children ages 11-12 can be left home alone for a short time, but not for a complete work shift; children ages 13 and older can be left unattended during the day, but even 13 to 18-year-olds should never be left alone overnight.
Tip No. 2- Consider your child's maturity level. Most kids age 7-8 can handle being left alone while you run a short (25 minute) errand, and most 10-year-olds can handle a few hours by themselves. Even if your child's age falls within the recommended guidelines, remember, some kids are more careless and unwary than others. Determine how you honestly feel about leaving your child unattended at home. Hint: Ask yourself if he/she has shown maturity when left alone for shorter time periods in the past and whether he/she could deal with certain situations that may crop up while left unattended.
Tip No. 3- If your child appears lonely or apprehensive after being left unattended, find a reputable sitter.
STRATEGY II: APPRAISE HOW "CHILD SAFE" COMING HOME TO YOUR EMPTY HOUSE IS
Tip No. 4- Don't let the child display a key in public—it's a sure sign he spends time alone. Keep the house key out of sight, not on a key chain or necklace, but in a small pouch clipped to an inside pants pocket. It should also contain several quarters for phone calls and a laminated card with your child's name and an emergency telephone number.
Tip No. 5- Figure into the safety equation how available, dependable, and helpful your neighbors are. Can you leave a spare key with them instead of hiding it? If anything looks amiss when your child comes home, can he/she immediately proceed to a designated neighbor's house? Hint: If no such "safe house" exists, ask your local police how you may initiate a Block Watch program in your neighborhood.
Tip No. 6- Once inside the house, instruct your child to immediately lock the door and call you or a designated person. All latchkey children must be able to reach a responsible adult at all times.
STRATEGY III:EXERCISE VIGILANCE WHILE YOUR CHILD IS INSIDE THE HOUSE TO REDUCE THE NUMBER ONE FEAR OF LATCHKEY KIDS- THAT SOMEONE WILL BREAK IN AND HARM THEM
Tip No. 7- A frightened child cannot always find or recall vital telephone numbers. Type phone numbers of your work place, police, fire, and a collaborating neighbor on address labels and stick them on all phones, including a well-charged portable phone to carry around the house. Hint: Purchase a powerful rechargeable Battery Pack, with over 270 current, 900 Series. Recharge each night.
Tip No. 8- Don't scare your child, but teach a healthy suspicion of strangers. Discuss how most people are good, but a few are not. Hint: Try bibliotherapy. Choose a book on the topic of strangers which is not frightening and read it with him/her. Consult with the librarians in the children's section of your local library; they will steer you toward additional picture books and videos on this topic which are age appropriate. For example, I found the book "Who Is a Stranger and What Should I do?" by Linda Girard to be cautionary but not overly scary.
Tip No. 9- Screen phone callers and front door visitors by installing an answering machine and a peephole in the door at your child's level (or have stepstool nearby). Phone callers are told you're unavailable, not gone from the house. Another tactic is to instruct your child to tell callers that you are "busy," rather than to indicate that they're home alone.
Tip No. 10- Write a nonnegotiable list of visitors allowed inside or who can say a predetermined secret password. Otherwise, the door is opened for no one. Include a short list of places your child may visit, which you have the phone numbers of at work.
Tip No. 11- Devise a nonnegotiable list of off limit places- deserted areas, public restrooms (in parks), short-cut alleyways, etc. Hint: Contact other parents and arrange for your child to spend some afternoons with friends to break the monotony of being alone five days a week.
Tip No. 12- Several parents I know have purchased a latchkey kid's best protection...a pooch. A barking dog will unnerve unwelcome callers with wrongdoings on their agenda. Companionship is a bonus. One parent recorded her friend's barking Rotweiler for her child to play whenever strangers called via the front door or phone. German Shepherds are known for their loyalty and ability to sense a true threat.
Tip No. 13- Devise a "break-in" plan, similar to a fire escape plan. Direct your child to immediately retreat to a designated neighbors and call police. If not possible, install a lock on the bedroom door, and instruct him/her to call 911 on the portable cell phone and while staying in communication with the dispatcher, proceed into the bedroom, lock the door, and hide underneath the bed. The troops will arrive pronto and 911 dispatchers are trained in how to comfort scared children and to ascertain their location in the house.
Tip No. 14- Lastly, purchase the book "The Handbook for Latchkey Children and Their Parents" by Tom and Lynette Lone, which contains useful ideas for dealing with minor and major crisis.
Although guilt is common among parents of latchkey kids, the phenomena is nothing new. Latchkey children have been around for a long while. During WW II, when thousands of women toiled in defense plants and 350,000 of them joined millions of men in the armed services, many children became "parentless" during the day. However, most parents back then had an extensive support group, including trusted neighbors and friends, their own mothers and grandmothers, and many extended family members to lean on when bad times came crashing down upon them.
During an age in which many working parents do not have such an extensive support system and where crimes against children are increasing while other crimes are falling, I hope these fourteen suggestions will ease some of the apprehension inherent in managing a latchkey kid family.
Robert Morton, M.Ed., Ed.S. has retired from his positions of School Psychologist and adjunct professor in the School of Leadership & Policy Studies at Bowling Green State Univeristy. A portion of Ad sale revenue from this site is donated to Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America. Questions? Comment? Concerns about family, parenting, educational or personal concerns? Contact him on the secure Bpath Mail Form.