On school days, one in three adolescents come home to a house with no adult present. Police departments have an expression for the hours between 2 P.M. and 8 P.M.: “crime time.” More than half of all youthful law violations are crammed into those six hours.
Child experts generally agree that eleven or twelve 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. For instance, 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. After all, part of what kept earlier generations of adolescents safe from temptation was lack of opportunity. Women were more likely to be stay at-home parents, and households often included members of the extended family.
Before you crown a youngster the afternoon keeper of the castle, she 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. Coach teens on how to respond to each of these situations. Conspicuously post emergency telephone numbers on the refrigerator and by every phone in the house, and 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 prevailing rules and responsibilities during the hours your son or daughter is home without supervision. To eliminate confusion, we suggest you put them down in writing. Among the points to bear in mind:
- 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? For example, if your home is wired for cable television, are there channels she 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 she expected to complete her homework and/or certain chores before you get home? Try your best to contact your teenager on afternoons when she’s home alone, even if it’s only a brief conversation to find out how her day went. Kids should always be able to reach you or another responsible adult, either by phone, fax, e-mail, pager or beeper.
- 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 youngster know. Kids worry too!