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A generation ago, the first day of school often meant a coming-of-age for many children, as working parents made tough decisions about leaving older kids home alone after school.
Today, due to the availability of many after-school programs, the number of “latchkey” children has dwindled. But for older children – tweens and teens – spending time alone for a few hours after school may be acceptable, and sometimes necessary, for working parents.
Heather Winn, family and consumer sciences educator with the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, hasn’t heard the term “latch-key” in a while.
“That’s probably due to the after-school programs I became involved with in McCurtain County around 2000,” said Winn. “Bloomberg reported the number of latch-key kids has decreased 40 percent since 1997. [I think that’s] most likely due to federal aid and the after-school programs.”
Winn said if parents must determine whether their children are ready for self-care, a few items should be considered.
“What are the possible risks? It depends on the amount of time spent alone and the degree of supervision the child will have,” said Winn. “Children left alone may be a risk for feeling lonely or scared, could become delinquent or do poorly in school, or could suffer harm through accidents or sexual abuse.”
Winn said some kids may tell their parents they are ready to stay at home alone because they believe that’s what their parents want to hear.
“Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to tell if your child is ready for self-care,” said Winn. “It’s best to do a trial run first, and if your child is afraid or unable to follow directions, he or she may not be ready.”
Rules are an important part of being left home alone, as they determine boundaries for safety.
“Children should be allowed to help make the rules,” Winn said. “When kids understand the rules, they are more likely to follow them.”
Winn suggests including homework, chores, play privileges, snacks and younger sibling care when considering basic rules.
Stress safety when kids are alone
Laura Hubbs-Tait, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service parenting specialist, said it’s also crucial to stress safety when leaving children home alone.
Emergency situations to consider include severe weather, home fires and even how to administer first aid for minor injuries or bug bites.
“Before parents leave their child at home alone, they need to ask themselves whether the child is mature enough for all the responsibilities of being left alone,” said Hubbs-Tait. “The general age recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics is 11 to 12 years of age.”
The Daily Press asked Facebook friends about their experiences with leaving children home alone, and all agree it’s important to evaluate each child individually.
“It depends on the kid, doesn’t it?” asked Cathy Cott. “I’ve known high school seniors who shouldn’t be left to their own devices. Seriously, though, [I think they could be left alone at about] 11 or 12, but I wasn’t kidding before: It sometimes does depend on the kid.”
Cott remembered a story about leaving one of her now-grown children at home alone.
“I got a call at work one day, and my child opened the conversation with this statement: ‘I got the bleeding stopped, but I think I ruined your mixer.’”
Sue Bird believes keeping a child busy is important.
“I think a lot has to do with the maturity of the child,” said Bird. “My goddaughter is 11 now, and was home by herself after school for the past two years, but not for very long. She had chores to do and her homework.”
Olga Hoenes allowed her children to stay at home alone after school at a younger age, but kept a watchful eye out.
“I let my kids stay home after school when they reached second or third grade,” said Hoenes. “They were alone until I got off work, but I worked right across the street. Trust me, they always tattled on each other. They also had to fold clothes and clean their rooms.”
Winn said if supervised after-school care is unavailable, it’s best to get to know neighbors and enlist their help.
“Contact trusted neighbors and notify them your children will be home alone,” said Winn.
“They may be able to watch for unusual activity around your home. If you have neighbors with children, you may be able to work out child care as a group, taking turns to provide care.”