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Deciding When Your Child Can Be Left Home Alone

A latchkey generation doesn't have to be all pros or cons.

In my generation, there seemed to be a pretty decent mix of kids that went home on their own after school and kids that had parents waiting for them. I remember coming up to our front walkway each afternoon knowing that my mom would have a snack waiting for us at the kitchen counter. The front door would usually be open, allowing the sweet aroma to pass through the screen door. There was a sense of security and comfort in that simple consistency. I did, though, have several friends who walked into empty houses each day and were often alone as late as 8 p.m.

Because of economic changes and inflation, it’s more common for both parents to work fulltime. And with single parent households on the rise because of divorce, many kids are in a situation in which they need to be responsible for not only themselves, but in some cases, their younger siblings, too, after school. Kids in this situation are known as "latchkey" kids, a term that became prominent in the 1970s and surged throughout the 1990s as more families joined this circumstance. Also leading to this rise, is increased poverty. Families simply cannot afford to spend almost half their earnings on child care.  

Some states have strict age guidelines on how long and how old a child can be left unattended, even as young as 8 years old. Florida, along with several states, has no age guideline, so a parent should use common sense when determining if their child can be unsupervised and make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Leaving children on their own often leads to anxiety and worry for parents.

Throughout my daughter's elementary school years, I had her enrolled in a before- and after-school care program. Once she started middle school, we determined that my daughter was old enough to get herself to and from school on her own until I got home from work. This decision was based on our close proximity to her school, how long she would be home alone unsupervised, and her comfort and maturity level. Now that my son is starting middle school next year, I’m faced with making this same decision for him.

While a latchkey situation works for many families, it’s important to know the pros and cons and have clear guidelines set for your children to follow. Extended durations of being at home alone can lead to loneliness, boredom and insecurity in some kids, especially if they are too young. It also presents an opportunity for developing poor eating habits. Too much unsupervised time can also lead to tensions related to sibling rivalry. For teens, open hours can lead to depression, feelings of isolation and opportunities to fall into peer pressure and engage in illegal, harmful or risky behaviors.

On the other hand, a latchkey situation can also instill self-reliance and independence in children who are trusted to take on this role. Having a clear plan in place, such as a list of responsibilities and activities your child can do until you get home and straightforward household and safety guidelines, can help ensure a positive latchkey experience.

Is your child allowed to have friends over? Are they allowed to leave the house, if so, under what rules? Are they required to work on homework? Are they allowed to be online while home alone?

Cheryl Tipkin, a Largo mother of an eighth grader, said, “I am a single parent and I have to be at work before my son’s school even starts. He is responsible for getting himself ready and securing the house when he leaves. He texts me when he arrives to school and when he gets home. He’s not allowed to leave the house or have anyone over without my permission. He is not home alone for more than two hours after school and my son is mature and has demonstrated he’s capable of this responsibility. I don’t really have other options right now, so I’m thankful it’s working out.”

Most importantly, latchkey families should have a safety plan in place in the event of an emergency. Your child should know contact numbers and close neighbors that they can go to if in need. Regarding safety to and from school, it’s recommended that kids take the same route to school each day. By doing so they will recognize people that are normally around that time of day versus when something doesn’t seem right. If possible, have your child arrange to walk to school or take the bus with a friend or sibling so that they are not alone.

Many parents establish a check-in routine to know when their child is leaving school and when they arrive safely at their residence. CARE, a latchkey call service, is available to help monitor the safety of latchkey kids by scheduling calls monitored by law enforcement to a specified home number. If no contact is reached within a set time, notifications are sent out to parents and emergency contacts.

Does your child know to keep all doors locked and not answer to anyone? Should your child only answer the phone if it’s someone they know and can be identified? Are they allowed to use the stove or knives if preparing a snack? These are all questions that should have been discussed within the family.

Leaving kids unsupervised for an extended period of time can have both negative and positive effects on them. Ensuring your child is ready for this responsibility based on their maturity and age and setting clear household rules can ensure their safety as well as provide the boundaries they need to have a successful latchkey experience.

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