Latchkey Kid: Make Home-Alone Time Happy and Healthy

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Updated on Apr 17, 2013

More moms are in the work force than ever before, and their school-age children are often “latchkey kids,” meaning they spend time alone at home after school. About 10 percent of children in grades 4 through 12 spend two to three hours home alone each school day, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It's not news that there can be many negative outcomes to latchkey living. Estimates say 51 percent of latchkey kids are doing poorly in school, and many teachers believe that being home alone is a major contributing factor to school failure. The afternoon—the most common time for kids to be home alone—is the peak time for juvenile crime. Research by the Carnegie Council on adolescent development shows that eighth graders who are left home alone 11 or more hours each week are twice as likely to use drugs and that sexually active teens tend to use the homes of boys whose parents are away at work for sexual activity.

Is there an upside to latchkey living? Yes, says Renée Peterson Trudeau, an internationally recognized life balance coach, speaker and owner of the career planning firm Career Strategists. “Some of the most solid, independent problem solvers I meet in the professional world were latchkey kids growing up,” she says. “Although adult support is crucial for kids’ well-being, young people who are allowed more freedom, independence and the latitude to make mistakes and figure things out on their own often end up becoming more creative, competent and confident adults.”

Use these tips to make latchkey living a safe, happy opportunity for your child:

Assign chores. While some parents would just be happy to know their child was busy doing homework into the evening, it’s not a bad idea to require your kid to vacuum the carpet, feed the pet or water the lawn before you get home. Chores teach responsibility and can stave off the boredom that often comes with the latchkey life.

Keep in contact. Always make sure your child can reach you and other family members. Set up scheduled times for phone calls. For example, have your child call you when he gets home from school, and then call him as you’re leaving work. There’s no substitute for the knowledge that you will be there if there's a real problem, even if you're at work.

Recruit a spy. If you have a trustworthy neighbor, kindly ask her if she could keep an ear and eye open from time to time. In cases when your child might be lying about where he was or which friends came over after school, you can run the story by the neighbor. Don’t forget to occasionally pay your personal spy with a tasty thank-you gift!

Come home early, unannounced. This is a great way to catch your child if you suspect he’s up to no good while home alone. Even if he’s well-behaved or too young to be doing something that would truly disappoint you, the thought, “Sometimes Mom comes home early,” will keep him more honest in the future.

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