Sam’s sitting at his desk waiting for the last period bell to ring and signal the end of his 6th grade English class for the day. His house key rests on his chest, dangling on a necklace that sits underneath his shirt. Sam is a latchkey kid, a child who is at home without supervision for some part of the day, especially after school when his parents are at work.

Latchkey children used to be very common and were predominantly Generation X’ers. Now that they have become adults, however, these same Gen X’ers are more likely not to allow their children to be latchkey. Many of these parents can’t imagine leaving their children alone or allowing them to wander around the neighborhood with their group of friends; risking mischief, danger, or worse. But for many parents, this system is necessary due to their work schedules.

If your child is currently latchkey, you’re considering the option, or you simply want to slowly give your child added responsibility; here is the best approach to keep your kid safe at home and why the latchkey approach could be very rewarding.

How old should a child be before being left home alone?

The legal age a child can be left at home varies from state to state. Some are 8-10 years-old, others are 11-14 years-old, Kansas is very low at six years of age, and some don’t even have an age limit. It’s important to check on the legality in your particular state.

According to National SAFEKIDS, a great rule of thumb is to never leave a child under the age of 12 home alone, but you do have to consider all the variables. Some children may fare better than others of the same age depending on personality traits. Are they impulsive? Are they prone to worry or anxiety?

One great way to figure out what works for your child is by simply asking them if they’d like to be left home alone. They will usually answer honestly and you’ll know if they are lying, because you’ll see blatant signs of being afraid like putting the radio or television on full blast, or suffering from nightmares.

IMPORTANT: The maximum time suggested to leave a child home alone is three hours.

Pros

Prepares children for independence
Boosts confidence
Relieves some parental stress

Cons

Lack of supervision or authority can lead to bad habits
Children could place themselves in danger
May add additional worry to a parent

Home security helps.

The best way to keep children safe in the home is to have home security and automation equipment to check in on the kids. Cameras can help you check in with kids and make sure they arrived to and from home safely, especially if they have two-way talk features.
Touchscreen door locks or smart locks give kids easy access to the home with no worry of losing keys or leaving them in the door. And many modern home security systems are intuitive and arming or disarming is simple enough for a child to do it.

Tips if Your Children are Going to be Latchkey

So, your children are going to be latchkey. Now what? Make sure they know that you are in charge even though you aren’t physically present. Have confidence in your children, but also help set them up for success.

Before you go Latchkey

  • Set rules, expectations, and proper safety guidelines.
  • Have emergency contact information readily available.
  • Lock up anything that is dangerous or needs to be kept away, including alcohol, firearms, poisonous or flammable materials, personal items that can be ruined, et cetera.
  • Have a fire escape plan and plans for other emergencies.
  • Have a first aid kit and all necessities readily available (food, water, et cetera).

While they’re Alone

  • Check in periodically.
  • If you change plans or get caught up, make sure to let kids know because they may worry.
  • Have kids take a familiar route home from school and make sure they don’t carry keys in a visible place.
  • Provide chores and healthy activities.
  • Never place one child in charge of an other if multiple are latchkey.

Be cautious where you hide house keys.

Hidden key holders are valuable tools, but if they are placed in common or obvious locations (like under a potted plant) it’s possible that a burglar will look there or stumble on it. Only store hidden keys if necessary or look to having a neighbor hold on to them for you.

Practice to make process.

Put children through relevant scenarios, situations, or hypotheticals so they’ll be able to handle an unexpected situation or emergency.

Build relationships with neighbors.

Build a relationship with your neighbors so they can be an emergency contact or extra eyes on the situation. Remember the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Don’t tell others.

Make sure children don’t share that they are home alone with others. This includes knowing not to answer unexpected phone calls or anyone who rings the doorbell.

Use DSC (Database Systems Corp).

DSC (Database Systems Corp) is a service that will call in and check on latchkey children. This can be another useful set of eyes on your kids.

Abide by general safety.

Make sure they know to abide by general safety rules, like locking doors and windows, not opening the door, and not letting a stranger into the home

Restrict online access.

In the modern age, a lot of child safety issues arise from the web. Bullying, inappropriate material, or simply a distraction can be caused by access to the internet. Get a device that can monitor WiFi and place safety rules on internet access. Also tell children when, where, and for how long the are allowed access.

What are the alternatives?

If you’re a parent who’s faced with the Latchkey option, but don’t want to go that route, there are a few alternatives you can take to keep your kids from having to be by themselves.

Work with neighbors.

Sometimes there will be neighbors who choose to watch neighborhood children before parents are able to get home. If you are in a neighborhood group then check to see if you have a similar program, or ask around and see what other parents do.

Get involved in after school programs.

Many schools or local groups offer after school programs to keep kids productive once the school day is over. These may be academic, athletic, or other, but there is surely an after school option that will fit your child's interest.

Hire a babysitter.

If you hire a babysitter, it’s important to hire someone that you trust and has a reputable background. With home security and automation equipment you can also keep a watchful eye on the house, but make sure that babysitters are aware so they don’t have their privacy intruded.

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