“Latchkey” Decision Always Tough for Parents
Nearly 7 million children 5 to 14 were regularly left unsupervised in 1995 while their parents were at work or away for other reasons, according to a 2000 Census report, the most comprehensive report done on latchkey kids.
If it’s a last resort, children who stay home alone must be mature enough to handle the responsibility, said Dr. Vicki Panaccione, a licensed child psychologist. And parents must be sure to ask whether children feel comfortable with the idea.
“It is important that the child feels safe and comfortable coming home alone,” Panaccione says. “If a child doesn’t feel comfortable, then a parent shouldn’t consider this option.”
Giving a particular age at which a child can be left alone is difficult because maturity levels vary. There are 10-year-olds who are mature enough to handle household emergencies, dial 911 and call parents. Yet some 15-year-olds aren’t mature enough to be left alone.
Panaccione says she doesn’t like the idea of leaving children younger than 12 at home without supervision because of safety concerns.
“And I certainly wouldn’t want a 12-year-old home (without supervision) watching younger siblings,” she says.
She also advises against leaving children alone overnight or for long stretches of time.
However, leaving a child at home can be a positive experience for the right family. A child can feel like it’s a privilege with a chance to prove maturity.
“If the kid feels like this is cool, then fine,” Panaccione said. “But be careful. I’m seeing too many children who are anxious because they are being exposed to more responsibility than they can handle. Parents are requiring them to act older than their age.”
Make sure security measures are in place. Have emergency phone numbers on the refrigerator, program the telephone so children can reach mom and dad by pushing one button, check with neighbors to see whether they can help if needed, and make sure to have regular, constant contact with the children once they arrive home.
Also, set strict rules on what the child can and can’t do, such as cooking, inviting friends over or answering the door.
And make sure he or she is aware of the restrictions, Panaccione said.
As published in Greenville Online.com The Greenville News, Aug 24, 2003.
© MMVI Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D.