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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Latchkey Children

Results on studies of latchkey children conclude that going home after school to an empty house is not, by itself, necessarily bad for children in grade school.  Dr. Jay Belsky at Pennsylvania State University reports that the issue is not so much the physical presence of someone in the home when a child returns from school as it is the psychological presence.  Being their psychologically, in his view, means the child having someone to call if he needs something, or having his parents come home and really care what he did after school.

The word “latchkey” has acquired a negative connotation in our present society.  It is another way of placing blame and guilt on parents, who by need or choice, work outside of the home.  In actual fact, many parents who choose to stay at home, often are not there when their children return from school.  The problem is not that children go home to an empty home after school; the problem is that parents have a legitimate fear when their children are home alone that they may be in danger.  When I was a child, I threw my book bag in the front hall when I came home from school and ran out to play safely whether my mother was there or not.  Today’s parents warn their children to lock the door when they come home and not answer it for anybody.  The children are forbidden to go outside to play unattended so they usually sit in front of the TV or play computer games until their parents arrive.  As a result, the children are being exposed to uncensored TV shows and computer games and are not using their bodies in physical play out of doors.  This behavior mode is not unique to latchkey children, but can also be true, and just as damaging for children whose parents are at home.

Another effect of the negative connotation of the word “latchkey” is that parents are somehow made to feel guilty and selfish.  As a result, they overcompensate.  They either bring gifts home everyday for the children or they call them every fifteen minutes to see how they are doing.  Some children catch on quickly that the parent is not quite comfortable with the arrangement and may take advantage of the parent’s concern.  I have had professional conferences interrupted by a telephone call from a parent’s child asking some mundane question like “what’s for supper?”  The parent interrupts everything to take the call.  That is perfectly acceptable for serious matters, but not when “child power” is being gratuitously exercised.

Being a “latchkey” child is neither good nor bad.  It is a state of being.  It is what all parties make of the situation that determines the outcome.  I can envision latchkey children as growing up to be independent, creative self-starters who have learned how to take care of themselves and have confidence in their ability to solve problems.  They are not fearful of the world because their parents have helped them learn how to deal with it successfully and have expressed confidence in their ability to behave responsibly.

I encourage parents not burden their children with their own fears and feelings of guilt.  It is more helpful to teach children to become problem solvers.  They can learn how to deal with most of the situations they might encounter when their parents are not there.  It helps to role play some common situations.  This is good advice for all children not just latchkey children.

It would be very helpful if neighborhoods would develop a sense of responsibility for all children.  In emergencies, children need help immediately.  Parents may be at remote locations and difficult to reach.  The Helping Hand program is a step in the right direction.  Children can go to the homes that have this sign in the window in an emergency.

Once parents have satisfied themselves that they have provided for their children in case of emergencies, they need not feel guilty because they are not always home with them.  Parents need to model confidence in themselves and their children to face most of life’s stresses knowing that they have the ability to take care of themselves.  I encourage you to do so and enjoy the time you do have with your children.





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