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Home Alone on a School Day

During Friday's discussion of forgetting kids, David S. suggested a great topic, latchkey kids

According to a 2005-issued Census report, 7 million children ages 5 to 14 spend some amount of time in "self-care." Kids ages 5 to 11 spend an average of 5 hours per week home alone; kids ages 12-14 spend an average of 7 hours sans adult supervision.

Staying home alone has been attributed to an increase in juvenile crime and making it easier for teens to have a place to have sex, according to the NYU Child Study Center, which also says that about half of latchkey children perform poorly in school. "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 latchkey children generally watch television, eat snacks, play with pets and fight with siblings," writes Frances Kemper Alston.

Much of this does not seem surprising. School hours don't match work hours of full-time working parents. Commutes make many parents' days even longer. As children age, they learn to take care of themselves and don't always want an adult around all the time. After-school activities don't always fill the hours between school and parents' arrival home. And child-care costs add up. When the kids are little, they need an adult all the time. But as parents teach their kids independence, is the cost as necessary?

Clearly, there are many personality, skill and maturity factors to consider when leaving children alone. Is the child calm and outgoing? Does the child have an ability to role play and what is his/her knowledge of life skills?

Do you know latchkey kids who are thriving? What about latchkey kids who really need an adult around but don't have one? What's your approach to after-school care? What pros and cons do you encounter with your choice?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  October 9, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Tweens
Previous: I Know I'm Forgetting Something ... | Next: 'Bringing Up Baby'


This is a big issue. I certainly don't think that children under 14 should be left home alone. Perhaps communities need to increase after school programs where kids can do homework and get involved either with community service or other purposeful social activities. My oldest is 14 and very mature and I would leave him home for a few hours without a problem. But the teen years can be difficult and need supervision therefore there should be options for those who cannot afford childcare. Fortunately I can afford to have someone drive my kids to their activities after school but I understand that many people can't do that.

Posted by: working mother | October 9, 2007 7:15 AM | Report abuse

Honestly, I think it depends on the child. It can help to foster a sense of confidence and independence to be left home alone. That being said, I don't think it should happen everyday for hours.

Most states have laws about how old a child can be to be left alone. From what I have seen, I think the average is about 12.

Posted by: Momof5 | October 9, 2007 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Can we please get rid of the term "latchkey kid"? And seriously, you should be able to leave your "mature" 14 year old kid home alone!

Posted by: Betty | October 9, 2007 8:09 AM | Report abuse

MomOf5, most states/counties provide age appropriate guidelines rather than laws. I prefer the guidelines over laws. Parents need to make the parenting decisions, not the government.

Posted by: Muskrat | October 9, 2007 8:14 AM | Report abuse

I dunno - when I was a kid, by about age 8 my mother worked part time, and I was home alone or with my brother for a couple of hours after school, several days a week. It's true I didn't do much more brain-stimulating than watching t.v. and having a snack, maybe playing outside for a while. But I don't think this independant time had me in danger of becoming a delinquent. That's what my college years were for! But then again, we lived in a safe, clean suburban neighborhood - maybe if we lived in the city, there would have been a lot more obvious trouble to get into. I think these situations need to be considered on a case-by-case basis, judging the environment and the maturity of the kids, and maybe even how well parents can keep tabs on their kids from afar.

Posted by: AlsoMom | October 9, 2007 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Kids ages 5 to 11 spend an average of 5 hours home alone.

Is that an average for a day? That can't be, can it? I'm appalled.

My stepdaughter talks about how they'd figure out in homeroom whose parents wouldn't be home that day after school, and that's where she and her friends would head when the bell rang. It's definitely an issue. These were kids who were good kids generally, maybe only one activity (most of her friends were in yearbook) but I know for certain that at least one (out of her particular group of 6) got pregnant in high school, and possibly more. ("Good kids" have sex, too.)

Posted by: WorkingMomX | October 9, 2007 8:17 AM | Report abuse

I think I was taking a course in Childhood Psychology when I first heard the term "latchkey kid" - it is definately a product of the new age in which both parents work. My own parents started trusting me with a key around age 14, and this would be before the cell phone became common.

Originally it was pretty scary (I was also learning to take public transportation on my own at the same time), but my ability to handle doing it "on my own" gave me a sense of responsibility and independance. I say this to demonstrate that the phenomenon is not without its benefits.

I will say, however, that not all children are suited to be given the "latchkey". This is where parenting skills come in, I think. Perhaps some more experienced parents can enlighten me as to how they determined when to give their child the key. Was it linked to the ability to drive? High School? Sheer necesity?

Posted by: David S | October 9, 2007 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Posted by WorkingMomX @ October 9, 2007 08:17 AM:

"('Good kids' have sex, too.)"

I'd say that "Good kids can still make bad decisions" works to.

Also regarding Betty's point about the term "latchkey kid," I'm almost certain that the term developed in Britian where the work "latch" is in more common usage. In the US, I'd say "Keyring Kid" or something similar would be more appropriate.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2007 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I knew a single mom who had to leave her sick child (age 9) alone for an hour. Child was very responsible but apparently the person painting the house was not informed that anyone was at home. When painter heard noise inside, he called the police.
How the police got inside is not known, but this child remembers looking up seeing an officer with gun drawn coming into the room!

Responsible kids who are left alone sometimes encounter unforeseen ... um... circumstances.

I agree with the comments about knowing the kid - how does the kid deal with new and tough situtations? Keeping one's cool and acting practically/responsibly would be up there on the list of pre-reqs for me leaving my kid alone.

I agree with the post that having some independence earlier helps someone learn how to handle it in larger amounts later.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2007 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I started going home by myself after school when I was in 6th grade (10-11 years old). I still went to before school care, though. But once I was in jr high the next year, before or after school care wasn't offered- is it now? Plus, once I was in high school I was involved in so many after school activities I wasn't home much by myself, and when I was all I wanted to do was take a nap. And once my younger brothers started staying home that was a pretty big discouragement from doing anything too bad- I knew they would have told on me.

Honestly, I spent more time in the basement of my high school boyfriend's house doing things our parents probably wouldn't have liked while his stay-at-home mom was upstairs.

Posted by: Carifly | October 9, 2007 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Posted by Carifly @ October 9, 2007 08:56 AM:

"But once I was in jr high the next year, before or after school care wasn't offered- is it now?"

The closest thing I've seen to before school care in Middle School and above is so called "Period Zero" classes that occur early in the day. Sometimes these are remedial, but most often they seem to be time to fit in classes that don't always work into the schedule for the rest of the day (such as computer programming.)

As for after school... extracurriculars are pretty much it as far as I am aware. Though some of those can be quite academically oriented.

Posted by: David S | October 9, 2007 9:03 AM | Report abuse

I started satying home alone after school at least once or twice a week (on the days I didn't have a sport or activity) when I was in 5th grade. It never seemed like a big deal, and I was certainly not committing crimes or having sex. I'd generally eat something, do enough homework so when my Mom got home I could show her I'd been working on my homework, and then watch TV or read. I never thought of it as a negative- I learned to keep myself busy and developed some indepedence.

I will say I am surprised that the age that kids are left to look after themselves goes as young as 5 though...I can't imagine leaving a 5-year-old home alone for any amount of time.

Posted by: CE | October 9, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

In 5th grade (10) I said home with my 8 yo brother for about 1/2 hour in the afternoon. In 6th grade it became about 20 minutes in the morning and 45 in the afternoon.

I loved the responsibility that I had. Of course, my parents had prepped us with other responsibilities before that - little things like chores that we weren't reminded about, staying home while parents ran to the grocery store, etc.

My grades did not suffer, I didn't drink or do drugs, I didn't have parties. Maybe it was because I knew my parents demanded good behavior out of both of us.

Posted by: Burke Mom | October 9, 2007 9:11 AM | Report abuse

My sister and I demonstrate both sides of the issue here. We grew up with a single, working Mom (my sister is 2 years older) and came home by ourselves after school from elementary on. I think in early elementary we went to friends' houses after school.

As we got older we were home alone, except personally, I rarely stayed home. I was always outside playing with my friends. My sister watched the soaps (although she wasn't supposed to) and as we got older spent more time with friends and getting into lots of trouble (drinking, smoking, probably some drugs but she always shielded me). Of course we didn't even have cable back then, let alone 100 channels and video games!

Not to say I was perfect either, but we just had (and have) very different personalities and reactions to the same situations. And I don't think that my sister's problems were BECAUSE we were latchkey kids, but because of her personality and other issues that she had and was dealing with.

I became a perfectionist and afraid of failure and she became rebellious and devil-may-care. There are situations where kids will have to come home and be alone sometimes, some kids more than others. But I think as parents we just need to keep a close eye on our kids when we're with them, and watch to see how they react to freedom so that we can make informed decisions about how they can handle being alone after school.

Posted by: RH | October 9, 2007 9:20 AM | Report abuse

Wow, where has parental responsibility gone? At age 10, I rode the bus to and from school alone, and stayed home alone until my mother returned from work at about 5:30. This was in San Francisco.

My mother taught me how she expected me to behave--do my homework, grab a snack, no friends over unless she knew them/their parents, and yes a little TV was OK. I called her at work the minute I got home from school, and each night she checked homework--but more importantly, she checked in with me, to see how I was doing. No drugs, no partying, no sex. I grew up with a great sense of independence, and even took up cooking as I hit about 15-16.

Straight As though high school and college, and an MBA later, I will handle afterschool hours with my own daughter as responsibly.

Posted by: RestonVAMom | October 9, 2007 10:15 AM | Report abuse

WorkingMomX: Thanks for catching me. That's 5 hours per week. I've fixed it.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | October 9, 2007 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I started babysitting after school when I was 12!

I can't imagine worrying about a kid being home alone after about age 10. Geez, even my 6 year old is ok for a (very) short period of time.

Posted by: acorn | October 9, 2007 11:08 AM | Report abuse

"No drugs, no partying, no sex."

Too bad, RestonVAMom, your teenage years must have really sucked!

Posted by: Muskrat | October 9, 2007 11:28 AM | Report abuse

LOL, Muskrat -- with the exception of drugs, I was kind of thinking the same thing!

RestonVAMom, I suspect you were an exceptionally responsible kid.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | October 9, 2007 11:57 AM | Report abuse

"Can we please get rid of the term "latchkey kid"?"

Why? Is it insulting in some way? It describes the situation to a tee.

Posted by: To Betty | October 9, 2007 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Does anyone have creative solutions for those Middle School years? In 6th - 8th grade, little one will not want a "babysitter" but we are not on board with leaving her home alone. We were thinking an afterschool "tutor", but I'm open to suggestions here...

Posted by: HoCo | October 9, 2007 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Posted by acorn @ October 9, 2007 11:08 AM:

"I started babysitting after school when I was 12!"

acorn raises an interesting point I had not thought about in terms of a supplement to an after school program: a job. Though age can be a factor, certain places in the informal economy (babysitting, mowing lawns, etc) are still done by kids before "working age."

Posted by: David S | October 9, 2007 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Definitely personality comes into play, but really the issue is being responsible.

An adolescent/teen can party, have sex, take some drugs, and be generally a normal lazy teen with no supervision, and STILL keep the house picked up, graduate as valedictorian with a full scholarship and go on to lead a happy productive full life.

I know this because I did it.

Catch them young, make them responsible young, teach them consequences young, and then you can trust them forever. At least trust them to know how to do "bad stuff" while avoiding most of the negative consequences.

I'm not saying parents should become full on enablers of partying/sex/alcohol/drugs- but do we really think it's realistic to just say a) no one under 18 should EVER do ANY of it and b) anyone under 18 who does that can ALSO be a responsible good person?

Let's deal with the real world problem in real world terms.

Posted by: Liz D | October 9, 2007 2:20 PM | Report abuse

From Kindergarten to 5th grade, I was in "Latchkey program" at school, which was after-school care through my school and only cost about $40/week. They would keep me until 6 or 7 at night sometimes. In 6th grade, my mom told my friend and I we could walk home, as long as we were together. Otherwise, we would have had to go to Latchkey. In middle school, I just took the school bus home. In high school, I was in Academic Decathlon and a bunch of other extras, so I rarely came home before 7 anyway.

Posted by: Kat | October 9, 2007 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Umm, I didn't say I never partied :)--but, yes, I went out with parental permission and our deal was that I could go as long as my mother knew where and with whom, and kept to curfew. Responsibility and trust is earned, and I knew the rules as well as the consequences if I did not abide by them, but also the benefits to me if I did.

Posted by: RestonVAMom | October 9, 2007 3:06 PM | Report abuse

I was at home alone after school at around 6 when I lived with my mom. When I moved in with my dad, my step mom stayed home. She went back to work when I was 10, so after that(my stepsister was 8 at that time), we came home from school alone for about an hour or so. No big deal. We had to have our homework done (or still be working on it when they got home.) No friends allowed. No opening the door except to a police officer or fireman. We survived just fine, and while I did do a few things I'm sure my parents wished I hadn't when I was a teenager, I did graduate high school in the top 20 in my class, graduate from college, have a successful career and marriage, and got pregnant when I wanted to and not before.

I'm worried about the idea that it's somehow wrong to let a 11 or 12 year old kid stay home for an hour or so alone. I know it does depend on the maturity of the individual child, but really, they have to take some steps toward independence or they'll be flailing and lost at sea when college time comes. I plan on letting my kid stay home sometimes (like during grocery store runs or whatnot) if he wants to as soon as he shows any capability to do so. Clingy, nervous parents get clingy, nervous kids, so you need to let go for the good of your child.

Posted by: Mazarin | October 9, 2007 3:17 PM | Report abuse

A latchkey family literally drove me out of my home. Twenty years ago I lived in a garden condo complex on the second floor. Unfortunately a family with 3 kids lived above me. The oldest girl was about 16 but very 'mature' for her age and hung out in the parking lot smoking with older kids. The middle kid was about 8, the youngest boy was born when I lived there. Both parents worked evenings and left the 8-year old in charge of the toddler, who was just starting to walking. The noise from upstairs was unbelievable. While the 16-year-old was out screwing around, the middle kid invited other neighbor kids into their condo for roller skating parties. The older girl's boyfriends would climb over my balcony late at night to get to her balcony above me. They flooded my bathroom on at least two occasions.

I knew the middle girl was supposed to be watching the toddler and I made a 'check the welfare' call to the County police. They found an 8-year-old babysitting a toddler; the 16-year-old was nowhere in sight. I also found out the mother at one time was running a day care service out of her condo, with only one exit and for a time she was on crutches. Not long after, fed up with the noise, I put my condo on the market and sold it. Never again will I live in a place with people living above me.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 9, 2007 4:15 PM | Report abuse

"Staying home alone has been attributed to an increase in juvenile crime and making it easier for teens to have a place to have sex". Huh? You mean juvenile crime and a place to have sex CAUSE staying home alone? Or did you mean to say the opposite?

Anyway, I was a latchkey kid from age 11 on. I'd come home from school and my mom would get home about 90 minutes after me. I actually found the time then nice because I would do my homework in the living room or, if I didn't have homework, play some video games before my mom wanted to watch the news.

This is one of those issues where blanket rules do not apply. Moreover, the studies that are cited are worthless because they give no indication of whether there was something different about the families before the kids even became latchkey kids. That is, are latchkey kids more likely, on average, to come from families with "issues"? Could these other issues be the cause of all the bad things measured? That is, perhaps the "latchkey" aspect has absolutely nothing to do with the bad behaviors. Rather, the kids were screwed up by families with problems already.

Blanket statements about whether and when kids should be allowed to be home alone are absurd. It always depends on the kid. My thinking is that, as my kids grow up, I give them more and more responsibility and independence. If they break my trust in some way, then I'll have to decrease their independence. In other words, it's all about titrating the amount of freedom you give them based on what they can handle.

Posted by: Ryan | October 9, 2007 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I hate to be picky Ryan, but the post that you are denigrating is actually correct English.

Posted by: Barbara | October 9, 2007 10:09 PM | Report abuse

Ooh. My boys are 9 and 10. I regularly leave one or the other or both home alone for a brief time (up to 40) minutes.

Now one is home sick. I have no vacation days left so my husband, college-age sitter and I have patched together a way for someone to stay with him MOST of the day. However, there are a couple of 45-minute gaps. None of us likes this but it's the best we could come up with.

Posted by: Kaitlin | October 10, 2007 4:47 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Barbara, it's not. It's backward. You attribute effects to causes -- not the other way around. On the other hand, causes may CONTRIBUTE to effects, but that's a different word. Nice try, though.

Posted by: Ryan | October 10, 2007 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Count me in as another 'latchkey kid' from 5th grade on. I would be home for about 75 minutes before my mother arrived. There were rules that the time was to be used doing homework and I wasn't allowed to go outside. I liked the independence. It worked well for me, but perhaps it isn't good for every child.

Posted by: Kellie | October 10, 2007 12:39 PM | Report abuse

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