(The following is taken from How to Say It to Your Kids, by Dr. Paul Coleman.)
Gabriel said she didn't mind being home alone after school. During the two hours she waited for her father to arrive home from work, the 12-year-old usually did her homework or watched television. She was good at monitoring the answering machine and not opening the door to just anybody who happened to knock. She liked the sense of being trustworthy and the feeling of independence that came with being home alone. Her best friend, Cindy, didn't like being home alone after school. She understood the necessity of it, but she often felt afraid. On winter days when it was dark outside by 4 p.m., she grew more frightened. With two out of three mothers of school-age kids in the workforce, latchkey kids are growing in numbers and total about seven million at last count. Helping them adapt depends on several factors.
Things to Consider
While some kids may do fine being home alone, no study of "self-care" has shown it to have positive outcomes. The most optimistic reports conclude it has no negative outcomes. Children who are on their own for at least 11 hours a week are twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. Kids (fifth- to seventh-graders) home alone more than two days a week were four times as likely to report getting drunk in the past month. Self-care is more risky in urban environments than in suburban. Some kids stay with friends under adult supervision. Others use their free time after school to "hang out" with peers. The latter group is at higher risk for trouble than the former. Girls without supervision tend to be more at risk for problems than boys of the same age. That is probably due to the fact that girls develop physically at an earlier age and are more apt to hang out with older teens. A study that compared college students who were former latchkey kids with nonlatchkey kids showed no difference between the groups in personality or academics. A survey of 18 pediatricians, 96 police officers, and 209 parents asked at what ages kids can be left alone without supervision. For 15 minutes or less, the average age given was 9. For an hour or more, the age was 12. For babysitting, the age was 14. When more than one child is left alone, the children are likely to behave somewhat more disruptively or ignore each other than when a parent is present. Authoritarian parents (attentive, warm, but firm about discipline) are a buffer against a child conforming with antisocial peers (during and after school) compared with inattentive or more permissive parents. Tough but loving parents, take heart: You have the right idea.
How to Say It
Most kids are inadequately prepared to avoid injuries (burns, cuts, etc.), deal with emergencies, handle phone calls or visitors at the door, or cope with kidnapping or molestation possibilities. TEACH them what to say or do and rehearse with them.
"Listen to the answering machine and don't pick up the phone unless it is someone you know well. Always say, 'Mom is busy at the moment,' and take a message." "Call 911 if you have any doubt about what to do. Here are the phone numbers for the neighbors who will be home." "The first-aid kit is always in the bathroom. Let's review how to use some of those items." Discuss ahead of time what your child plans to do when he arrives home. You should always know your child's home schedule. "Your plan is to make a sandwich, do your homework, and maybe play a video game. I'll call you and check in."