Your 8- and 11-year-old sons get home from school at 3:30 p.m., but you don’t get home from work until 6 p.m. Whether you like it or not, your children have to fend for themselves that couple of hours every weekday afternoon.
The truth is, you’re not the first parent to have to face this dilemma. Even in your parents’ or grandparents’ days, there were children who had to come home to empty houses after school. The term "latchkey kids" actually originated in the early 1940s when the need for women to work in the war industry led to a large number of children staying home alone after school.
Today, however, with an increasing number of parents who work, latchkey kids are becoming more common. Typically these children are alone between one and three hours every weekday afternoon, with many having the added responsibility of caring for younger siblings.
That can create some anxiety for parents.
What if your kids lose the house keys and can’t get into the house? What if they turn on the stove and get hurt? What if there’s a power outage or a tornado warning? And, heaven forbid, what if a child molester follows them home after they get off the bus? There’s an endless number of "What if?" scenarios, but there is no reason to have to fret about your children’s safety—if you’ve taken proper precautions.
Here’s what local law enforcement officials recommend:
Know if your kids are ready
The most important step you can take to ensure your children’s safety while they are home alone after school is to determine if they are ready for the responsibility.
There’s no magic formula for making that determination. "A lot of it has to do with the child’s maturity level and ability to problem solve," says Mike Drugan, a detective with the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office in the Special Victims Unit. "This is something that’s going to vary from one individual to another. In some cases, a 12- and 13-year-old may be more than ready to take on the responsibilities of self care. But I’ve also known 14- and 15-year-olds who probably shouldn’t be left home alone."
Some questions you should ask yourself: Are your children able to keep themselves occupied or do they need constant supervision? Do your children get along well with each other or do they fight a lot? Do they understand—and follow—safety instructions? How do they do when it comes to making decisions under pressure? Can you rely on your children to tell the truth? Are your children able to deal with unexpected situations?
In addition, a latchkey kid should want to stay home alone and be comfortable assuming the additional responsibility. Ask your children what they think.
"If your child is afraid to be left home alone or if he or she is prone to be a worrier, that should end it right there," says Michael Goy, crime prevention officer for Lake Forest Police Department. Some children simply cannot handle being by themselves; they may experience exaggerated fears, chronic loneliness, depression and even poor academic achievement. On the other hand, Goy says, "there are children who will welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their maturity and will take pride in being allowed to take charge."
Do a thorough safety check
Talk to your children about the potential deadly consequences of guns, power tools, drugs, adult beverages, cigarettes, medicines, harsh cleaning supplies and other toxic chemicals. "If you have these kinds of items in your home, keep them in a secure place where they will be out of your children’s sight and locked up," advises Steven Millar, an officer with the Streamwood Police Department and past president for Illinois DARE Officers Association.
Make sure your front and back doors have secure deadbolts and that all windows lock properly. There should be a smoke detector on every floor of the home. Explain to your children how to lock the windows and doors, and what to do if the smoke detectors or burglar alarm goes off. If you have a built-in swimming pool, make sure the pool gate latches properly and stays locked.
If you’ve always kept a spare key under the doormat or a planter by the front door, this is the time to stop. Thieves know people keep their keys in these places. If you want to your kids to have access to a spare set of house keys, Goy says it’s far better to leave the extra keys with a trusted neighbor. And even better, he adds, is to "have your kids wear their keys on a chain around the neck and tucked inside a shirt, pinned inside a pocket or attached to a belt loop. That way they won’t easily lose them."
Establish house rules
Come up with a list of "house rules" and go over each rule with your kids before you leave them home alone for the first time. Talk about why each rule is important and how it will keep them safe. "Keep your rules at a reasonable number so that they’re not overwhelming," advises Andrea Usry, a juvenile detective with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Waukegan.
Stick with the essential rules, like: come straight home from school and stay indoors. Start your homework within 15 minutes of arriving home. Do not use sharp kitchen knives, the stove top or the oven (note: you need to have no-cook snacks on hand for your kids, like fruit, crackers, cereal and yogurt). Don’t let any guests come over while you’re away. If someone comes to door—friends included—don’t answer it.
Write your rules down, post them and review them with your kids periodically.
Answering the phone
If someone calls and asks for a parent, your child should say mom or dad can’t come to the phone. The best response is to simply say, "My mom’s not able to come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?" or "My dad’s not available."
You may also want to take advantage of Caller ID. This way, you can tell your kids not to answer the phone unless it’s a family member.
Prohibit Internet usage
Most law enforcement officials advise against children using the Internet while their parents are away. "There are more predators on the Internet between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. than any other time of the day, because they know this is when kids are getting home from school and they know that parents work," says Sally Trujillo, a juvenile officer with the Aurora Police Department. She cautions against parents allowing their latchkey kids to browse the Internet, go on chat rooms or send out e-mails or instant messages. "There are so many situations that kids can get caught up in," she warns. "The kids feel safe because they’re inside their home, but in all reality they may not be. Kids have no idea who they are really speaking to when they’re on the Internet."
Rather than unplug the computer (because many kids do need to use it for school assignments), Trujillo recommends installing Internet filtering software such as CyberPatrol, Cybersitter, Max Protect or MacAfee Parental Controls.
Have an emergency plan
Talk with your kids about possible emergencies they might encounter and what they should do. They need to know that a serious wound or injury, a house fire, a home break-in, being followed home from school, a stranger staring at them through the windows and refusing to leave are all emergencies and warrant calling 911.
Make sure your kids know your home address, so that they can provide it to the emergency operator.
It’s a good idea to have a fire drill with your kids, so they know how to escape a house fire. A fire extinguisher and first aid kit should be accessible to them and they should know how to use both. You should also have a plan for what to do in a power outage, tornado warning or other weather-related emergency.
There are other situations your children may face that are not emergencies but still warrant help from an adult. Perhaps your child has a headache and wants to know if she can take some medicine, or maybe she’s gotten several crank calls and is starting to get spooked. For these situations your kids should have a list of adults they can call if you and your spouse are not available to answer your phones at work. Include the numbers of relatives and friends who live close by. Be sure to let these people know in advance that your children might be calling them in an emergency. Post the list near all the telephones in your house.
Set up a phone check-in routine
Have your kids call you at work immediately after arriving home from school so that you know they made it home safely. When they call, ask them if they encountered any problems, whether they locked the doors and if they need anything. If there’s a chance you might not be at your phone when they call, tell them to leave a voice mail message.
You may want to phone your kids an hour or two after their call, just to make sure they’re doing fine, Drugan advises. You might call them and ask, "What are you doing right now?" "Have you started your homework?" "Do you need any help?" Not only is this a good way to monitor how your kids are doing, it can also serve as a prod to get them studying.
Rehearse and observe
Before you start leaving your kids home alone, Millar suggests you do some role playing with them to see if they know how to handle different situations they might encounter. You might ask them: "You’re home alone and somebody comes to the front door. What do you do?" "What should you do if you hear a tornado siren or if the smoke alarm goes off?" "Suppose you break a glass and it shatters all over the floor. Do you pick up the pieces with your hands or sweep it up with a broom and dustpan?"
"Obviously you can’t prepare your kids for every possible scenario, but if you role play different circumstances with them it will help them build up their confidence level and become more comfortable dealing with new situations," Millar says.
After your kids have spent a few afternoons home alone, sit down with them, ask them how the time alone is going, invite them to express their concerns and carefully go over the areas where additional attention is needed. If your kids want to share problems or concerns, be willing to listen.
If everything doesn’t always goperfectly, try to be understanding. "No matter how mature your child acts, he or she is still a child," Usry says. "Children invariably make mistakes."
Her own children were once latchkey kids and "they didn’t always act like adults, to put it mildly," she adds with a chuckle. Sometimes they caved in when the neighborhood kids wanted to come inside the house or got into mischief rather than do their homework. There were also occasions when Usry came home from work to find her children running around the subdivision chasing after the dog that got loose. These things happen.
Give your children plenty of encouragement, support and reinforcement and treat their mistakes as learning experiences instead of failures. Tell them how much you appreciate their helpfulness, self-reliance and cooperation while you are away and be liberal with appropriate rewards for good conduct.
Drugan suggests you have a written agreement with your children about what is expected—that they follow the house rules, that they don’t fight with each other while you are at work, that they get their homework done by the time you come home, that they don’t complain about their new responsibilities—and then hold them to that contract.
"Treat it just like you would a business contract," Drugan says. "If they don’t follow them through on their end, there’s going to be consequences. But if they do what they’re supposed to, there’s going to be rewards." That may be a bonus in their allowance or going out for ice cream after dinner.
"When youngsters understand how critical their support and cooperation are to their parents and to the family as a whole, they are eager to demonstrate their ability to accept responsibility," Drugan says.
In the process, kids learn how to organize and manage their time and plan their schedules, which are important life skills, adds Millar. "Your kids learn independence and responsibility, and you can breathe easier knowing your kids are doing OK while they’re home alone."
What does the law say?
Legally, to leave a child home alone for an extended time, he or she has to be at least 14, according to the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, Chapter ILCS 405/2-3.
What can cause some consternation for parents is that the law does not define exactly how long that means. Nor does Illinois law state a specific age for when it is or isn’t legal to leave kids home alone after school.
In general, though, law enforcement officials do not have a problem with 10- or 11-year-old kids being by themselves at home for two or three hours after school. But that doesn’t mean parents are always going to be OK with the law. There are many factors law enforcement officials look at when investigating calls about "home alone" kids.
When Detective Mike Drugan of the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office gets a call about a latchkey kid, he first addresses how long the kids are left alone and at what time of day. Overnight for a child under age 14 would definitely be a problem. A couple hours in the afternoon for an 11-year-old might not be. Drugan also looks at the household environment. Is it unsafe? Is it extremely filthy? Are there hazards like exposed wires or aggressive dogs in the house?
There other factors too. How many minors are there at home together? Is a 13-year-old expected to babysit a lot of younger children? Do any of the kids have special needs? What are the weather conditions like? Is the parent or guardian accessible by phone? Do the children have access to food?
"When it comes to kids being left home alone, there really are no hard and fast rules," Drugan says. "It’s up to each officer that goes out on the call. Generally what we’re going to look for is what steps the parent took to keep the child safe."
The bottom line, he says, "if you’ve taken the proper steps to keep your kids safe, you’re confident your children are OK, most law enforcement officers will probably be OK with your decision, too."
Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer based in Chicago specializing in family and health topics.
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