Latch-key kids, safe at home



Commentary by Staff Sgt. Brian Thompson
49th Fighter Wing Safety Office


8/20/2007 - HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Now that school is in session again, we need to worry about the safety of our children after school ends for the day. 

Some children go home to an empty house until their parents gets off work. The term for this is called latch-key children. 

According to the United States Census, one third of all school-age children in the 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. 

Some children enjoy caring for themselves and happily accept the added responsibilities. Others occasionally are lonely, bored or scared. For all of them, however, the self-care experience is an opportunity for a parent to discuss all aspects of safety and crime prevention, as well as build their children's self-esteem, confidence and competence. Moreover, studies show that a close relationship with parents decreases or moderates any negative effects of self-care. 

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 that involve latch-key children. We know about the 51 percent who are doing poorly in school. Most teachers believe 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 percent. 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. 

A few personality traits to help determine if your child is ready are: if the child 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 and has courage enough to resist pressure from friends and others. 

If you feel your children are ready, make sure they can reach you by at work. Post your cell and work numbers, along with numbers for a neighbor, the police and fire departments, and the poison control center near all your home phones. It is also a good idea to have your children check in with you at work or with a neighbor when they get home. Agree on rules for having friends over and going to someone else's house when there is no adult is present. Work out an escape plan in case of fire. Ensure your children know never to open the door to a stranger when they are alone in the house or apartment. Caution them about answering the phone and accidentally letting a stranger know they are alone, they can always say their parents are busy and take a message. Lastly, make sure they know how to work the door and window locks and that they use them when they are inside alone. 

No matter how responsible or mature your children seem to be, these safety tips should apply to all latch-key children.