For some folks, the phrase "latchkey child" rings of parental neglect. Yet, unlike in the movies, most kids who are left unattended in an empty house do just fine, emotionally and otherwise. Indeed, the experience adds to their maturity. Their only problem is occasional boredom. Still, there are concerns that parents need to address before handing a child the last set of house keys.
When to start. Only mature youngsters can manage the responsibility of the latchkey lifestyle. Usually a 7- or 8-year-old is able to stay home alone for 30 minutes or so while you run an errand. By the time they're 10, most youngsters can (probably) handle being on their own during a day for a few hours, although you shouldn't do it on a daily basis.
Your child needs to demonstrate maturity before you increase the time or include evening hours. For instance, a child can earn the right to come home alone after school by taking on chores and getting good grades.
The wrong choice. Some youngsters shouldn't be left alone, regardless of their age. Children with a history of playing with matches, destructiveness, lying, stealing, or disobedience need supervision. So do youngsters likely to throw a spur-of-the-moment party for friends. Potential problems such as these should be resolved before you leave the youngster unsupervised for any significant length of time or on a regular basis.
Leaving older children in charge of younger ones may create problems as well -- unless the kids have a good relationship. Even then, the older sibling needs to be mature and confident enough to take care of problems or emergencies. For instance, don't leave your oldest in charge of your youngest if the young one is hard for even you to handle. Likewise, you're asking for trouble expecting a child below age 14 to look after an infant or to regularly supervise an active toddler.
Preparing your child. Both you and your home-alone child will feel more comfortable if you spell out the dos and don'ts of "guarding the fort." Nothing should be left to the imagination. Instead of telling your child not to "go far" from the house, for example, use familiar landmarks to point out exactly where he or she may go. Next, anticipate potential problems and then develop procedures for dealing with each crisis.
You might even create a handbook that you can review every so often with your children, role-playing certain emergency procedures. This will help keep your children "on their toes" and ensure that if and when problems do come up, they'll be able to handle them competently. Remember to post police, fire, and other important numbers beside all phones.
Your child should be able to get in touch with you quickly. The quicker, the better, of course. If your job takes you out of the office frequently, or if you can't be reached right away for other reasons, then it's probably not a wise idea to leave your child alone until the age of 14. On the other hand, if you can find a reliable adult to cover for you, especially in the event of an emergency, leaving your youngster unattended is OK.
Avoiding idle hands. Giving your child something constructive to do during after-school hours reduces the odds that trouble will brew; idle hands increase the likelihood of problems. Try assigning your child a routine of after-school chores to be completed before you get home. This promotes responsibility and keeps the child away from the television set.
You might even want to ban after-school TV watching, which distracts kids from paying attention to other, more important things that may be going on around the house. In addition to a routine of chores, encourage your child to work on homework assignments and hobbies.
Trust your feelings. In the end, remember that the most important test of all is how comfortable you feel about leaving your child alone.