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Tips for the Parents of Latchkey Kids
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Guidelines to go by...

Latch-key kids are becoming as American as apple pie. Whether this is a good thing or not, millions of children are home alone after school. The up-to-date term for this is self-care, and the old term described those children easily identified by the key hanging from a string around their neck.


Self-care can work just fine. But parents need to

1) prepare the child,                             

2) set up some strict rules involving safety and school work,

3) pay attention to the child's feelings.


There are no hard and fast rules about the age a child can start self-care safely. If I had my druthers, I would say age 10 is early enough. But many kids are mature enough at 8 to be left alone (really alone, 8 is too young to be responsible for a sibling).


Each parent must establish the child's readiness. You should assess the child's physical maturity (the child has the physical dexterity to use the key), mental maturity (the child can recognize danger and problem-solve at least to the level of calling for help), emotional maturity (the child is not too shy to call a neighbor for help and can talk about and handle feelings of loneliness or boredom).


Here are the Heins' Guidelines for Self-care:


  • Teach the child how to use the key, lock all doors and windows from the inside, and safely store the key.
  • Teach the child how to get out of the house in an emergency like a fire.
  • Be sure the child knows the full address and phone number of the house and how the parent can be reached.
  • Teach the child how to use the 911 system (dial 911, give the address, name, and nature of problem in that order). Role-play with the child until both you and the child are comfortable with the child's ability to use 911.
  • Choose and teach the child the safe route home from school and make sure the child understands not to deviate from this.
  • Role-play possible situations with the child. Ask the child what he or she would do if the popcorn in the microwave catches fire, the phone is dead, somebody followed you home from school and is outside the house, you lose your key, etc.



  • Check-in call to parent or an arranged substitute is the first thing the child does on arriving home.
  • Establish boundaries like whether the child is allowed to play outdoors, where the child can go, etc.
  • Set appropriate limits on phone use and provide a timer to help the child obey this rule.
  • Set appropriate rules about visitors. Decide which friends can come over and for how long.
  • Decide which appliances, stereos, etc. the child is allowed to use unsupervised -- and make sure the child knows safe and appropriate usage. The microwave is an easy-to-use and convenient appliance, but many kids do not realize that microwaved food can burn them. Check out your child's microwave use.
  • Set firm guidelines for snacks and TV.



  • Find a neighbor or friend who can be called if there is a problem and the child cannot reach you.
  • Set up a backup system to reach you. If you are not going to be at your usual place, give the child the other number. Consider getting a beeper or cellular telephone if your job requires you to be on the move. Knowing that the parent is always available adds to the child's comfort level.



  • Teach your child why he or she should never open the door to strangers. Teach the child to use the door peephole and go over a list of people who can be admitted.
  • Tell the child to call 911 if someone tries to break in the house or won't go away after ringing the doorbell.
  • Tell your child to never tell anyone who calls on the phone about being home alone. Give the child an appropriate phrase to use on the phone, "My mother can't come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?
  • Instruct the child to hang up and call you or the backup if he or she gets a crank or obscene or frightening phone call.



  • Teach your child elementary first aid like cool water for a burn. Tell the child you know that he or she is big enough to handle such matters.
  • Teach the child what to do in the case of a power failure. Work out with the child where he or she thinks the flashlight and transistor radio should be kept.
  • Tell your child that you trust him or her. You believe the child is big enough to obey all the rules and stay at home alone in safety.



Have the child make out the chart: call Mom, snack, homework, etc.

Assign the child chores to do and put these on the chart: fold towels, make salad, set table, etc. The more responsibility you give your child, the more competent the child will feel.



  • Ask your child to tell you about anything that makes him or her feel uncomfortable about staying home alone.
  • Tell your child you understand about feeling lonely -- or bored. Tell the child you remember how it felt to be lonely or bored when you were a child and how you handled it.
  • Set aside some time each week to talk about staying home alone. Ask your child to help you figure out how to make the self-care experience better.


  • Check to see that chores and homework got done.
  • Ask your child each day what happened and talk about the "day" each of you had.
  • Tell your child you expect that homework will always be done and school work will always be taken seriously -- it's the child's job.