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Latchkey Kid

Latchkey Kid

11 September, 2016

Latchkey kid or Latchkey child pertains to a child that returns from school to an empty home because their parents are away at work, or a child that is often left at home with little or no parental supervision.

The term refers to the latchkey of a door to the house. The key is often strung around the child’s neck or left hidden under a mat (or some other object) at the rear door to the property. The term is claimed to have originated from an NBC documentary in 1944, because of the phenomena of children being left home alone becoming common during and after World War II, when one parent would be enlisted into the armed forces, so the other would get a job.

In the United States, a 2002 Census survey reported 5.8 million (15%) of all children between the ages of 5 and 14 living with a mother care for themselves an average of 6.3 hours in a week and 65% of those children spent between 2-9 hours home alone. White non-Hispanic children are more possibly to be left home alone than children of other races.

The effects of being a latchkey kid vary with age. Loneliness, boredom and fear are most common for those younger than 10 years of age. In the early teens, there is a greater vulnerability to peer pressure resulting in alcohol abuse, smoking and sexual experimentation.

Socioeconomic status and length of time left alone can result to other negative effects. In one study, middle school students left home alone for more than three hours a day reported higher levels of behavioral issues, higher rates of depression and lower levels of self-esteem than other students.

Children from lower income families are linked with greater externalizing problems (such as conduct disorders and hyperactivity) and academic problems, while children from middle and upper income families are no different than their supervised peers. In 2000, a German PISA study found no significant differences in the scholastic performance between “latchkey kids” and kids in a “nuclear family”.

Nevertheless, being a latchkey kid has some advantages, which include independence and self-reliance. In some cases, being left home alone may be a better alternative to staying with baby-sitters or older siblings.

Legal Aspect

The legality of the latchkey children’s “alone time” varies with country, state and local area. In the United States, state and local laws typically do not specify any particular age under 18 when a child can be legally left without supervision. As a result, parents are often left without clear guidance as to when children may be permitted to remain at home without supervision. Parents can be held responsible by child welfare organizations or law enforcement if children come to harm while left without supervision if, in the opinion of the agency, the children’s age or other concerns made such a choice inappropriate. In 2003, this issue received attention in the United States when two children died in New York apartment fire after being left home alone. Their mother, Kim Brathwaite, was a single mother who had left her children unsupervised when a babysitter did not show up. Fearing the loss of her job, Brathwaite left the children, aged 9 and 1, alone while calling home regularly. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office brought charges of reckless endangerment against Ms. Brathwaite.