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.
Keep the keys handy. The classic image of the latchkey kid has the house key dangling from the child’s neck, and that remains a good method of making sure your child doesn’t lose it. Many families also hide a secondary key somewhere where a stranger wouldn’t find it. A trustworthy neighbor or nearby family member can also hold an extra key for you.
Encourage and support after-school activities. Extracurricular activities are known for keeping kids out of trouble, and they’re especially helpful for latchkey kids. They break up the routine and potential boredom of coming home to an empty house day after day.
Set clear rules. Open communication is at the heart of every parenting situation, and latchkey living is no different. “Make sure they’re clear on your expectations around the time alone—especially around screen time, homework and friends,” Renée says. Your relationship with your child sets the stage for his success as a latchkey kid—and as a human being.
Discuss the situation weekly. Take the time to keep up with how your child’s afternoons are going. This gives you a chance to get a sense of his behavior and happiness in the situation, and lets him share any concerns. “It’s crucial that they know and can count on time with you to really connect and receive your undivided attention,” Renée says.
Set parental controls on your TV and Internet. Most TV providers and web browsers allow you to control which channels and websites are viewable. It’s likely that your child knows more about these technological perks than you do, so take time to educate yourself on how to do this. (And periodically change your passwords!)
Stock the kitchen. Food doesn’t just provide nourishment after your child’s long day—it also makes lonely afternoons feel comfortable and “homey.” Let your child pick out a few healthy favorites that he can look forward to.
Establish benchmarks. As your child gets older and shows more responsibility and home skills, allow him more freedom. Depending on age and maturity, your child can play outside, walk to the store, cook for himself or enter parts of the house that were previously off-limits. These small benchmarks reward your child’s responsibility as a latchkey kid.
If you take the necessary precautions, you shouldn’t feel guilty about being a working parent. “There are many positives that can come from kids having increased independence and responsibility,” Renée says. “They feel more confident around problem solving, they’re more assured about their own ability to care for themselves, and when they’re given additional chores, such as starting dinner or helping out siblings, they feel a greater sense of purpose and that their contributions are critical to the family’s overall success.”