The phrase, latchkey children, actually originated in the early 1800’s, when youngsters who were responsible for their own care wore the key to their home tied on a string around their necks. Today, however, with an increasing number of parents who work, there are more children who are at home alone after school and many who care for younger siblings, too.
There is no magic formula to measure a child’s readiness to assume self care at home. Very often, circumstances drive the issue such as daycare being unavailable, cost-prohibitive, or unsatisfactory. A latchkey child should want to stay alone and be comfortable assuming the responsibility.
Consider your children’s maturity level.
- Do they understand – and follow safety instructions?
- How do they do when making decisions under pressure?
- Do they think clearly and make the choice you would want them to?
- Do you have any idea about how they would react in an emergency?
- Is your neighborhood safe? Do you and your child know your neighbors, and trust them to come to your child’s aid if necessary?
- Do they know about calling 9-1-1?
Begin with a thorough check for safety risks in the house or apartment: This includes obvious dangers like access to firearms, adult beverages, and kitchen appliances, especially those that use natural gas. (If cooking is to be “off limits” plan to have snacks on hand that do not require heating up.)
Put together a First Aid Kit with your child: This is a good time to discuss appropriate measures in the event of an injury.
Post emergency phone numbers near all the telephones in the house: Be sure to include contact information for neighbors and other relatives who live nearby.
Review emergency evacuation drills: Refresh their memory about how to get out of the house in case of fire.
Discuss what to do in different kinds of emergencies: Tell your child if they have any doubt at all about how to respond in an emergency to call 9-1-1. It is important for any youngster who is trusted to be home alone to know key identification information such as the home address, parents’ work numbers, and the name and phone number of a neighbor or responsible adult nearby. If your child ever does have to call 9-1-1, our dispatchers are especially trained to calm the child, provide understandable instructions, and keep the child on the line until the emergency is resolved or emergency responders arrive on the scene.
Be sure to require your child to take the same route to and from school each day: Come straight home from school. Set up a check-in message routine so you’ll know they made it safely even if you can’t come to the phone when they call.
Important rule – caution your child NEVER to enter the house if the door is open: If it appears it may have been broken into tell them to go to a neighbor’s home for help and if a break-in is suspected by the adult, call 9-1-1 for emergency assistance.
- Keep doors locked at all times.
- The best rule is no company, no exceptions. That means when mom and dad are away, not even friends may enter the house.
- If someone calls and asks for a parent, the child should say they can’t come to the phone without letting the caller know they are home alone.
- It is also not advisable for kids to talk about being home alone and to keep their house key safely out of sight. Not only is it a temptation for friends to visit, but a careless word could alert unwelcome visitors.
Parents don’t want to make their children paranoid but it is entirely appropriate to go over safety instructions and to discuss potential dangers. Things have, unfortunately, changed in our society, and we have the responsibility for our own security and protection. This is a case where it is better to be safe than sorry.
Basic prevention tips for being home alone:
- Establish “House Rules.” Write them down, post them, and review them periodically. Consider including homework and chores, using the phone, computer or kitchen appliances.
- Stress early on that parents should not be called to settle minor sibling disputes and disagreements. These can be addressed in the evening or at special weekly “meetings” held for just that purpose.
- Practice emergency procedures, including calling 9-1-1. Don’t assume that youngsters will know what to say on the phone in the event of an emergency so rehearse some possible situations and talk about what you would expect them to do in each one.
- Do some role playing to make children comfortable answering phone calls and taking messages, as well as dealing with things like peer pressure (other kids wanting to come inside) and strangers.
- If you have a change of plans, or if you are not going to return home when you said you would, call and reassure your child. Children tend to worry when things don’t go according to plan, and a lack of information can cause them to panic.
- There are many occasions during the school year when youngsters have after school activities. Be sure to discuss each day’s schedule including all transportation plans.
- Try to avoid placing too much responsibility on a young child and listen carefully when a “home alone-er” wants to share concerns or problems.
Remember, no matter how mature your child acts, he or she is still a child. Children invariably make mistakes, they can get “spooked” and develop fears about being home by themselves so give them lots of encouragement, support and reinforcement, and treat their mistakes as learning experiences instead of failures. Show them how much you appreciate their helpfulness, self-reliance and cooperation while you are away, and be liberal with appropriate rewards.