12 Tips for Parents of Latchkey Kids

latchkeyFor many households, after-school childcare is not feasible for a variety of reasons. In fact, the 2010 U.S. census reveals that, at one time or another during the week, up to one third of all school age children go back to an empty home after classes end. If your child is one of the five to seven million latchkey kids in America, there are some things you can do to make the experience less stressful for both you and your child. Preparing for time spent home alone is of vital importance, while setting and enforcing a set of predetermined rules is critical for your child’s safety and your peace of mind.

  1. Apprise Yourself of the Laws in Your Area – Laws governing the age when a child can legally be left home alone vary from state to state. Before deciding to leave your child alone after school, it’s imperative that you check to see if your child is of legal age to do so. There are also laws determining the age a child needs to be before he is allowed to care for other children, as well as how long he’s legally allowed to be without adult supervision. It’s crucial for you to be aware of these laws if you are planning on your children being home alone.
  2. Make Sure Your Child is Emotionally Mature Enough to Look After Himself – How your child accepts being a latchkey kid depends largely upon his temperament and age. Younger children just don’t have the ability to handle difficult decisions that may arise during your absence, and even older ones who aren’t quite as mature as their peers can struggle to deal with life as a latchkey kid. Know your child’s capabilities before you ask him to assume such a heavy load of responsibility.
  3. Prepare Your Child – Kids will handle the situation differently on an individual level, depending on their particular temperament and skill level. You can prepare your child for this new step towards independence by fostering a sense of maturity and helping him learn the skills he’ll need.  Praise your child for a task done well and offer feedback regarding things he could have done differently when he makes mistakes. This instills a sense of confidence in the child and helps him learn through firsthand experience.
  4. Get Your Child Involved in the Rule-Making Process – Many parents will create a long list of rules for kids to obey, and then wonder why they have so much trouble getting the kids to follow them. If you sit down with your kids and enlist their help in making the rules, you may find that those rules carry more weight due to the child’s sense of ownership. Often, kids will come up with rules that you would never even think of, so be sure that you’re not neglecting his opinion when you draw up a game plan.
  5. Discuss Home Safety Issues – Talk with your child about safety around the house and quiz him on the ways he would handle a series of hypothetical emergencies to ascertain just how much he knows about dealing with scary situations. There are certain things they should know without a moment’s pause, like how to dial 911, where the first aid kit is kept and where to find the list of emergency phone numbers if it is not already programmed into the phone.
  6. Never Assume Your Child “Knows Better” – Revisit rules on a regular basis, and check in with your child to determine how things are going with the latchkey arrangement regularly while he’s alone. Caring for himself is a large responsibility for a kid, so don’t assume that they know better than to make mistakes that seem obvious to you. This is especially true for younger children who have little experience looking after themselves. If your child does something wrong, find out why the disobedience occurred and  be sure to address the issue in a manner that will get your point across without being overly harsh. Sometimes, kids really do have a good reason for making what seems to be a bad decision. It’s important that, despite a serious transgression, she still feels she can come to you with anything.
  7. Get to Know Your Neighbors – If you don’t already know your neighbors, now is the time to get to know them. Ideally, you will develop a relationship with the neighbors long before you need them to watch out for your child. Find neighbors with whom you can build trust and feel comfortable with as backup check points for your child. You are not asking them to babysit, but you are enlisting their help should a serious emergency arise.
  8. Lock the Door – Impress upon your children the importance of locking the door behind them and not answering it under any circumstance unless they hear otherwise from you. Kids alone at home can be easy targets for predators, and you never know who may be watching.
  9. Check In – Open lines of communication are essential to the success of a latchkey arrangement. Have the kids check in with you upon arriving home. Everyone knows what to expect when the schedule is set. This also means that you will need to check in with the kids if your schedule should change even slightly. Stopping at the grocery store could cause a panic if your kids can’t reach you by phone, especially if you’re later than they expect. Just as you want them to keep you aware of any changes in the schedule, you need to do the same with them.
  10. Set Up Parental Controls – Parents need to be aware of online predators, especially if their children will be spending large chunks of unsupervised time at home in the afternoon. Set up rules governing computer use in your absence and make sure that all possible parental control settings are activated. You may want to limit online activity to homework until you get home, but it’s still wise to make sure that there are at least some filtering options in place if kids can access a computer while they’re not being supervised.
  11. Research Community Programs – If your area has community programs, such as Boys and Girls Clubs or community recreational programs, consider making use of these programs. Many times the programs are free or low cost. This will give your child something constructive to do and she won’t need to spend so much time alone in the afternoons until you return in the evening.
  12. Look In to Extracurricular Activities – Some schools will offer programs for latchkey kids for a few hours before or after school that can take up a bit of time, keeping them safe and supervised for a bit longer during the day. Enrolling your child in such a program is particularly helpful for younger kids who may be ready for short stints at home each afternoon, but aren’t quite prepared to spend several hours alone.