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Latch Key Children (page 2)

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Making the decision: When is a child ready to be home alone?

Personality characteristics, skills, and maturity are useful criteria for determining a child's readiness to be home alone. Personality doesn't generally change much with age, although children can learn to modify some of their reactions as they learn what is expected of them. There are some children who find it very difficult to be alone, some who need time and gradual exposure to become accustomed to being by themselves, and some who adapt easily.

The personality characteristics of the child who is ready

The child who

  • is not fearful, feels at ease in the world and self confident
  • is calm, not excitable, when something unexpected happens
  • is outgoing, talks about his or her feelings and thoughts readily with parents and others
  • admits wrongdoing, even when expecting disapproval
  • has courage enough to resist pressure from friends and others

The rate at which children acquire the skills and the milestones of maturity varies, but the following provide some general guidance.

The skills of the child who is ready

The child who

  • can clearly state and spell his or her full name, address and telephone number
  • can clearly state his or her parents' names, employers, addresses of work places, work telephone numbers
  • knows how to dial 911 and give information
  • knows not to enter home if it looks suspicious
  • knows what to do if he or she is followed
  • knows not to play alone outside the home
  • knows how to answer the telephone when alone at home
  • knows what to do in case of fire
  • plays "What if?" games with his or her parents
  • helps to make the family's rules and knows the emergency back-up plan

The milestones of maturity of the child who is ready

The child who

  • Assumes responsibility with pride and pleasure
  • Follows directions well
  • Is a good problem solver
  • Takes initiative without being asked or reminded
  • Has learned "life skills" which include good conflict resolution, age appropriate competence, identity linked to real abilities and a strong sense of worth
  • Has good peer relationships and is involved in community service and programs

Making it work: Helping children acquire these characteristics

The personality characteristics are innate and observable early in life. Personality traits, however, are not immutable. Parents can help children if they

  • offer encouragement from infancy on, correct gently, say that everyone has to learn to do certain things and this takes time, and then praise all efforts made, children will strive to please
  • are sensitive to and accepting of their child's temperament and reactions. This builds the child's confidence, sense of security, openness to new experiences, pleasure in accomplishing tasks and courage to act
  • discuss things with their children uncritically, accept their children's point of view before offering alternatives, reassure children who have done wrong that they only made a mistake and are too smart to repeat it. This results in children who readily tell their parents everything that happens in their lives

On the other hand, parents who

  • constantly tell their children what to do and how to do it, and then remind them constantly don't raise self starters
  • ask their children to do things that are too complex or require greater maturity than the child has, force their children to fail, and lose self confidence
  • label their children as "bad," or "lazy" or "messy," or any undesirable trait, confirm that behavior. If children are labeled in this way s by their parents, whom they consider all-knowing, they assume they must indeed be "bad" or "lazy" or "messy," and the behaviors are confirmed. Criticism and hurt feelings only lead to bad behavior; if children are made to feel bad they can't act good!
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