Children left home alone for long periods of time are called latchkey children. What is not known are the many different ways a parent who is at home may produce a latchkey child.
LIKE MILLIONS of other children, 16-year-old Susan and 13-year-old Cindy didn't really ask to be in the left-to-themselves situation they find themselves in so much of the time lately. Their mother acquired a mutually agreed upon divorce from their dad. She's now gone a good deal of the time, either working or away from home visiting friends. The girls usually return from school to an empty home and are by themselves for much of the time. Susan and Cindy's dad is in the military and he rarely sees the girls. The girls' situation is far from ideal. Susan pretty much comes and goes as she pleases, doing what she wants when she wants. She now has a steady boyfriend and she's known to be experimenting with drugs. Thirteen-year-old Cindy has her own house key, which she wears on a chain around her neck so she won't lose it. She comes and goes almost as much as her older sister. Indications are that Cindy will probably follow her older sister's lead. It won't be long before she has a steady boyfriend, someone to give her companionship she now misses. And it will be just a matter of time before she gives in to peer pressure and joins the in — group and begins' experimenting with drugs, too. Susan and Cindy are now deeply ensconced members of that large and increasing group of youngsters we modernly call "latchkey" children. Because they carry their own house key, they've been given the name latchkey children, a name acquired from the common word used years ago for house key. For one reason or another, whether because their parents divorced, creating a single-parent home, or because both parents work and are gone, latchkey youngsters usually come home to an empty house, to be by themselves and often left to their own devices.
Why the Drastic Change
Latchkey child rearing began its real growth during the last two decades. Before that time, up to the 1950s, in most Western countries family togetherness was considered important, and children were rarely left home alone. Books, magazine articles, television and the movies extolled traditional religious moral values, and emphasized family togetherness. But now, life in the 1980s has drastically changed. Morals are different. Family togetherness is no longer the priority. Concern for children is waning. Many young families are economically strapped. In some cases they are trying to maintain an unrealistic standard of living. But most are simply economically hard pressed because of ever — rising costs of living. Both parents feel forced to work to make ends meet. In America an estimated 50 percent of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 6 work outside the home. And, of course, most single parents must work. So we find latchkey children proliferating. Tragically, it is not at all uncommon for children only 5 to be left home alone. There are even reported cases of latchkey children as young as 3. This is especially true where the single parent or two-parent home cannot find, or perhaps cannot afford, proper day-care centers or baby-sitters to care for their children. And unlike years ago, Granddad and Grandmother or relatives tend to live too far away to be of help. Certainly, in most cases, Mom or Dad gives them a list of dos and don'ts. Perhaps they're given the typical warning not to let anyone in the house. And they are most likely instructed whom to call in case of emergencies. But honest analysis should tell us this mode of child rearing is unwise.
Reality is, our modern latchkey child-rearing trend, no matter what the cause, is unhealthy. Vance Packard in his book Our Endangered Children: Growing up in a Changing World goes as far as to label this latchkey age "anti-child." Some would say this label is too harsh. But today's downplay of family importance and family togetherness has led to "latchkey thinking," and it is a definite negative in child rearing. Researchers confirm how negative latchkey child rearing is. A recent study found that, depending on the age of the child, latchkey children often suffer deep loneliness, terrible scare — filled anxieties, as well as periods of boredom. It is reported that some small children experience recurring nightmares and obsessive concern for their safety because they've been left home alone for long periods of time. Analysts say latchkey children are more likely to be involved in accidents, fires, drug abuse and juvenile delinquency. These same researchers say latchkey children, when left home without parental supervision and protection, are more likely to do poorly in school and be sexually abused by older siblings and children, or even adults. On the other hand, some experts feel being a latchkey child may not necessarily be so bad. According to them the experience encourages "independence, responsibility, street savvy and pride." But let's look at the big picture.
Problems a Natural Result
Worldwide, young people in droves, most lacking proper, needed parental guidance and supervision, have plunged into the drug culture. As many as 75 percent of high school and secondary school students experiment with or regularly use drugs. It is not at all uncommon for grade school children to pop pills, take various kinds of drug trips or smoke marijuana. Penal institutions are filled with errant youths. For the most part, they've gotten into trouble because they've lacked proper parental guidance and supervision. They've been latchkey children during major portions of their growing years. Teenagers' ability to be confident and trusting, to have affection for their families and be able to master inner feelings and impulses, has been on a steady decline since the 1960s. That's made clear in a U.S. survey of two groups of teenagers by psychiatrist Daniel Offer and psychologists Eric Ostrov and Kenneth I. Howard. Their published survey. The Adolescent: A Psychological Self-portrait, compared a group of 1960 teenagers to a group growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. About 20 percent of the latter group reported feeling empty emotionally, being confused most of the time and feeling they would rather die than continue living. These children clearly lack needed parental supervision and guidance. That's not to say all latchkey children get into trouble, and those with adequate parental guidance and supervision do not. But common sense should tell us that the chances of latchkey children getting into trouble or having difficulty in society would be significantly higher.
Home but Not Home
Poor child-rearing practices can create a "latchkey situation" even when parents are home. Parents can be home with their children, but not really home with them. Consider, for instance, that in the average home the television set is on for hours at a time. According to estimates, by the time the average American child reaches 16 he or she has spent 10,000 to 16,000 hours watching television — more hours than spent in school! How much parental Influence and interaction between parent and child can really take place when television is capturing both the eye and the ear of the viewers hours on end? Not much. Little more than an occasional two or three words, a chuckle or grunt is probably the only parent-child communication during such periods of time. Like as not, in many homes, the child or children may be watching television in one room while the parents are viewing their special program in another room. That's one form of latchkey child rearing! There are other ways of being home with children, but not really being home with them. Dad may come home from work, immediately shower and change, giving the children only a passing glance and word. He may then go out to his workshop in the garage, alone, to finish a project. Perhaps instead of a workshop project it's the newspaper, a magazine or a book when he eats. Dads can neglect their children without even being aware of it. Moms, of course, can do the same. Parents, without giving a second thought, give children money, send them out the door to a movie or amusement center, a friend's house or some activity. They wish them a good time. If this occurs every weekend, it becomes a latchkey mode of child rearing. It can also be a way by which the parent can avoid being bothered with the children. How many parents also realize they are practicing a form of latchkey child rearing when they fail to properly correct their children for obvious misbehavior? Sometimes it seems easier to let the children get away with it. Children need structured guidance in the form of logical boundaries. They need correction when family rules are broken. Deep inside, though correction may seem grievous at the time, children receive a sense of security and love. by a concerned parent caring enough to administer "tough love" when necessary.
Fathers should especially consider their relationship with their children. Dads must go out of their way and make a concentrated effort to spend time with children. Work and business concerns, as well as a barrage of outside-the-home activities, usually leave fathers with insufficient time to spend with children. It can be a major irony. A father can think he himself needs to work long hours to give his family and children the best. In reality he may be denying his family and children what they need most — Dad. Children need Dad's time, his concern, teaching, guiding, giving, loving, playing and correction. Money alone cannot buy or give family and children what they need most from a father — father himself. A father's presence is important. This is true during crucial preschool years when a child's sex-role identification, personality, motor skills, creativity and ability to achieve are being formed. It is also true when children are older, a time when they may need firm guidance and advice. Tests show that boys deprived of a father's presence on average have more limited chances of growing up to become well-adjusted, happy, productive young men. According to studies, father — deprived boys tend to exercise less self-control and lack somewhat in social responsibility. Father — deprived girls also suffer in similar ways and especially suffer in their ability to relate appropriately to males as they grow into adulthood.
Of course, the major area of concern in today's latchkey society is the single-parent home. Special effort by the parent in a single-parent home must be made. Single parents can succeed, but it takes extra special effort. All of the sound child-rearing practices still apply. Instead of having two to share the parental work load, the single parent becomes Mom and Dad in giving necessary guidance, instruction — and correction, and in playing with children. Television should not be allowed to become a baby-sitter. Single-parent mothers often face financial hardships. They are today's "new poor." We speak today of the "feminization" of poverty because of financial difficulties that usually follow divorce and/or casual sexual relationships. According to some authorities, in the U.S., divorced women with children suffer as much as a 73 percent decline in income in the first year of divorce. Paying the bills, maintaining shelter, providing necessary clothing, and just getting enough to eat aren't easy. Standards of living have to be lowered. Thriftiness must become a way of life. Not uncommonly, the same is true for single-parent homes — headed by a father. Confided one single-parent mother about single parenting and divorce: "It comes when you least expect it. It hands out an overdose of heartache and then — as if that's not enough — when you are at your weakest, it gives you a series of headaches labeled money; children who can't understand why their daddy (or mommy) moved away; ex-spouses who seem to see their total purpose in life as the reopening of deep wounds; and loneliness and self-doubt" (Diary of a Divorced Mother, Marilyn Murray Willison, 1980, page 78).
Pick Up from Where You Are
Perhaps you are a single parent. Though you didn't necessarily ask to be in that position, you must go forward. Pick up the pieces. Begin where you are. One mother found herself in just such a plight. It wasn't her choice. Her husband decided he no longer desired or wanted the responsibility of a wife and four children. There she was, no job, no savings, no credit, no driver's license (she didn't really know how to drive a car), no immediate family to call on for help. When her first child-support payment arrived, she couldn't even get it cashed, lacking 'proper identification. But she picked up the pieces and she began from where she was. She learned how to drive. She fell back on an old skill and began working part-time to supplement her alimony and child support. A tragic automobile accident kept her from working. As a result almost all of her share of the money was already spent when the family home was sold. But she remained undaunted. This mother of four managed to raise her children without making them typical latchkey children. Whether you are a single-parent mother, single-parent father, or a two-parent family and needing both of your incomes, you too can avoid raising latchkey children. Find a support system where possible. Immediate family, reliable neighbors and friends can be called upon for help if available. Turn to proper authorities and use legal means if and when necessary. Don't leave any stone unturned. But by all means avoid leaving your children home alone for long periods of time, even if they are older. Definitely avoid leaving toddlers by themselves for any length of time. A good rule of thumb might be: Don't ever leave children under 12 home alone.
During those periods of time when your children may have to be home alone out of special necessity, keep some vital points in mind. Before leaving, make certain your children know where you are going and when you will be home. If possible, leave them the phone number where you can be reached. Call them if plans unexpectedly change and you will be delayed. And by all means, make sure they know the phone numbers for emergency help, police, fire department. Make sure your children and your neighbors are acquainted. Arrange with your neighbors to keep an eye out for your children before you leave home. They can help be your eyes and ears while you're gone, watching out for your children's safety. See to it that your children are properly occupied while you are away. Schedule chores for them to accomplish. Check to see that they have done them when you return. If they haven't, be sure to give them proper correction so they won't fail the next time around. Be cautious if you utilize a daycare center or baby-sitter. There are documented cases of some few day-care centers, thought to be reputable, actually being involved in child abuse. Some baby-sitters have done the same. It is essential to check out thoroughly any daycare center or baby-sitter beforehand. Finally, remember that you are responsible for your children. You brought them into the world. You hold the keys to their safety and success. Other institutions may help, but final responsibility rests squarely on your shoulders.