Latch Key Children (page 2)
It was during the second World War that latch key children came to the country's attention. Fathers had gone off to war, and mothers had gone into industry, making the tanks, planes, uniforms and bullets the soldiers needed. The children went home with keys on chains, ribbons, a piece of string tied around their necks. Some mothers chose to work the night shift, called the "swing shift" and tucked their children in bed, locked the door and went to the factory. The country's response was prompt and comprehensive. Programs were set up in factories, in schools and community centers, to gather in all the children whose parents were busy with the war effort.
These programs closed promptly when the war ended, and women resumed their housewife roles. Today again there are large numbers of working mothers, but unlike in wartime, the country isn't organized to care for their children.
According to the U.S. census, one third of all school age children in the United States are, for some part of the week, latch key kids; that is, they go home to an empty house or apartment. The total number may be between five and seven million children between five and 13 years old. Marian Wright Edelman, the director of the Children's Defense Fund, thinks it's close to 16 million children. The Census Bureau found that 15% were home alone before school, 76% after school and 9% at night. Presumably, the 9% have parents who work night shifts.
One-half of all children in the country age 12 to 14 are home alone an average of seven hours a week. The very poor in America are less likely to leave their children alone at home, or allow them to go home alone, than families who earn twice the poverty income. This is probably because the very poor live in less safe neighborhoods, and have fewer friends or family who can step in, in case of emergency. In spite of the hours spent on the job, working mothers spend an average of five-and-a-half hours a day with their children.
When latch key children are functioning well, we don't hear about them. But we do hear about the one-third of all complaints to child welfare agencies which involve latch key children. We know about the 51% who are doing poorly in school. Most teachers believe that being alone at home is the number one cause of school failure. The afternoon hours are the peak time for juvenile crime. In the last 11 years, juvenile crime has increased 48%. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development found that 8th graders who are alone 11 hours a week are twice as likely to abuse drugs as adolescents who are busy after school. The Council also found that teens who have sexual intercourse do it in the afternoon in the home of boys whose parents work. Unsupervised children are more likely to become depressed, smoke cigarettes and marijuana and drink alcohol. They are also more likely to be the victims of crimes. When home alone latch key children generally watch television, eat snacks, play with pets and fight with siblings.
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 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 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 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
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!
Reprinted with the permission of the NYU Child Study Center. © NYU Child Study Center.