The term refers to the latchkey of a door to a house. The key is often strung around the child's neck or left hidden under a mat (or some other object) at the rear door to the property. The term is claimed to have originated from an NBC documentary in 1944, due to the phenomenon of children being left home alone becoming common during and after World War II, when one parent would be enlisted into the armed forces, so the other would get a job.
In the United States, 5.8 million (15%) of all children between the ages of five and fourteen years care for themselves an average of 6.3 hours per week and 65% of those children spent between 2-9 hours home alone.
Before allowing a child to stay home alone or care for younger siblings, parents need to be aware of the guidelines for child supervision in their community. Typically, these guidelines take into account a variety of factors, including but not limited to, a child's age, mental, emotional and physical development. It is important to note that guidelines vary from county to county. For example, it may be acceptable to leave children ages 9 to 11 home alone for up to one and a half hours in one county, while a neighboring county requires the child to be at least 12 years old. If you are unsure whether your child is ready for self-care, or meets community guidelines, contact your EAP counselor or school counselor.
If your child is ready for self-care, there are many ways you can help him or her have safer and more positive experiences after school. The following are some ideas and suggestions.
Check your home thoroughly for safety risks. Post a list of emergency numbers near each telephone. Assemble a first-aid kit with your children's help. Develop and practice fire escape plans.
Require your children to take the same route to and from school each day. Counsel them to come directly home. If possible, have them walk with friends. Establish a check-in routine so a responsible adult knows of their arrival. If your child checks in with you at work, develop a back-up system in case you are unavailable.
When Approached By A Stranger
Discuss with your children how to respond to strangers. Have children practice saying "NO!" and getting away from a stranger. Don't have children carry bags or other items with their names printed on them, or wear keys in a visible place.
Sit down and talk with your children about how they would handle different situations. Have children practice what they should do if:
- They loose their key
- Someone they don't know or expect knocks at the door
- They receive a prank telephone call
- A sibling gets injured or feels sick
- Discuss and practice as many "what ifs?" as your family can think of.
Dealing With Boredom
Children often become bored, no matter what their after-school arrangements are. Have your child make a list of activities. Suggest books to read or introduce them to public television. Help them get involved with a hobby or pen pal writing.
Dealing With Loneliness
Feeling lonely is not uncommon for children who stay home alone, especially after being in a classroom full of other children. Talk with your children about their lonely feelings. Make sure they understand why you are not at home. If possible, arrange for a visit at your office. Have an approved friend come over to play. Leave your child notes in surprise places. Consider a pet if your child is mature enough to care for one.
Rules Are Important
Establish rules and guidelines so expectations for your children are clear. Set limits on what they can do, such as playing outside or using household appliances. Assign household chores, considering age appropriate tasks. Designate time for homework and play activities.