Anna Mendenhall, MD, FAAP
On school days, one in three adolescents comes home to a house with no adult present.
Child experts generally agree that 11 or 12 years old is the age at which parents can consider allowing their boy or girl to become a so-called “latchkey kid”, provided that it is during the day and for no more than approximately three hours.
Before you do, there are several factors to take into account:
- Is the neighborhood generally a safe one?
- Are there neighbors around during the day who could lend a hand in an emergency?
- The most crucial question is whether or not your son or daughter is ready to handle this major responsibility.
Studies have found that latchkey kids exhibit higher levels of fear, stress, loneliness and boredom, miss more days of school and have lower academic scores. They are also more likely to experiment with sex and drugs than kids who aren’t left by themselves for long periods of time.
Try to contact your teenager on afternoons when s/he’s home alone, even if it’s only a brief conversation to find out how his/her day went. Kids should always be able to reach you or another responsible adult either by phone, fax or e-mail.
Before you let your child stay home alone, they should be able to perform the following routine household tasks:
- Knows how to properly answer the telephone. Kids should never disclose to an unfamiliar voice that they are alone. An appropriate response would be: “My mom’s not able to come to the phone right now; can I take your number and have her get back to you”?
- Knows what to do and who to call in the event of a fire, a medical crisis, a suspicious stranger at the door or other emergency situations. Coach kids on how to respond to each of these situations. Conspicuously post emergency telephone numbers on the refrigerator and by every phone in the house or make sure that they are programmed into cell phones.
- Be sure they know at least two escape routes from the home.
- Knows where to find the first-aid supplies and how to handle basic first aid (or whom to call) for cuts, scrapes, nosebleeds, minor burns and so on.
- Knows how to switch on a shutoff electrical circuit breaker or replace fuse.
- Knows where to find the shutoff valves on all toilets and sinks, as well as the main water valve, in the event of a leak or overflowing toilet.
- Knows how to put out a cooking fire. Keep baking soda, flour or a fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Teens should know never to throw water on a grease fire.
- Knows how to contact you in an emergency.
- Knows the names of her pediatrician, the preferred hospital and the family medical-insurance plan and type of coverage.
Decide on the rules and responsibilities during the hours your son or daughter is home without supervision. If you put them down in writing, there won’t be any confusion/debate.
- Is she allowed to have friends over? How many? Same-sex friends only?
- Under what circumstances is she to answer the door? Or is she not to open the door at all?
- Which activities are off-limits? TV, computer, chat rooms, etc. Are there channels s/he is prohibited from watching? Parents who are not home in the afternoon might want to investigate purchasing parental-control tools for TVs and for computers linked to the Internet. Though by no means infallible, the “V-chip” and Web filters do enable you to choose the types of programming that come into your home.
- Is s/he expected to complete her homework and/or certain chores before you get home?
- If you’re out for the evening or away, leave your itinerary, including when you expect to be home.
- Mom, Dad: You’re late! If you’re going to be home late, let your child know. Kids worry too!