The Modern Latchkey Kid

What is a latchkey kid?

A latchkey kid is a child who is left home alone in the time after he or she gets home from school, but before parents or guardians return home from work. According to the After School Alliance, a nonprofit organization, one in 25 children between kindergarten and fifth grade have no one to come home to after school lets out.

The reason for this is not that parents are unaware of the dangers of kids being at home alone. Many of them don't have flexible work hours and can't afford to hire a sitter and reason, perhaps correctly, that the average ten-year-old can spend an hour alone without going into a tailspin. With younger or more excitable children, however, it may be another story!

Some states have laws about how old a child must be in order to be legally left on their own; for the majority of states this is between eight and 10 years old; parents who leave younger children on their own may be legally charged with neglect.

Negative consequences of being a latchkey kid include boredom and feeling unloved, alone, or frightened, while positive consequences include increased independence and self-reliance. With a young child alone, however, it can be difficult to avoid imagining worst-case scenarios.

What can be done about leaving children alone at home?

There are many alternatives, from stop-gap measures like telephone reassurance systems, to more comprehensive after-school programs.

Telephone reassurance systems are calls programmed to go out to a household with a latch-key kid at a certain hour each day. The child picks up the phone and presses a key to inform the system that they are at home and safe. If the child does not pick up the phone or press the right key, parents, neighbors, or even the police can be automatically alerted. While cell phones can accomplish a similar purpose, using a land line verifies that the child has actually reached the house and is safely inside.

After-school programs are also a viable option. An after-school activity can keep a child safe, engaged, and interested rather than feeling like they are simply killing time until the parent or guardian arrives home. It is important that the activity be something that the child feels fits his or her own interests, rather than something that is forced on them as a sort of babysitter.

Institutions like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club of America provide inexpensive after-school activities in which children may participate, and are often located very close to local schools. It's easy to search online and find out if there is one nearby, and have this information ready and available for your students in advance. After-school programs run by the school district can also be very helpful, as the child does not have to walk alone or make his or her way to an unfamiliar place. Instead, the student is already with trusted adults.

What are the benefits of after-school activities?

Sports are a good choice to ensure schoolchildren stay active and healthy throughout the school year, and are a great way to build responsibility, teamwork, and strategic thinking. If your local school doesn't have a baseball or soccer team, you might consider starting one with the help of other stakeholders like parents, teachers, and administrators, talking to your school board, and/or helping to fundraise at your workplace.

Interest-based after-school activities like fan clubs, chess club, movie club, art club, or music lessons can also be an excellent choice for a child with special interests. A budding "Doctor Who" fanatic can develop connections with her peers and better logical reasoning and social savvy through discussion and debate, while under the eye of a responsible adult or two.

The number of latchkey kids in the United States has grown marginally in the past decade or so, by 6%. The increase may be due, in part, to decreased funding for such after-school programs, or mentor exasperation with ever-increasing demands and legal liability for their students. Many teachers are so exhausted by the rigor of their workday that it is hard to imagine taking on additional responsibilities.

Being a mentor for an after-school club or even being there for kids to chat with as you finish up your day, though, can make a big difference in a kid's life, and help you shed your classroom-created conception of them, which can be a small part of a far bigger whole. Getting to know your students outside of the classroom environment can actually make your (and their!) classroom experience more fun and more personal.

When we offer students a place to stay and a listening ear, we can provide the attention that may be missing at home. This attention can spark a new interest, cause a positive change in attitude, and cause the student to feel safe and supported every day.