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How to make sure latchkey kids are safe

More than 3 million children under the age of 12 are alone at home part of the day. “Today” contributor Dr. Ruth Peters shares some safety tips.
/ Source: TODAY

Q: My girls are 11 and 14 years old, and I’m a single parent. I’ve always been able to arrange my work schedule to be there for them when they arrive home from the school bus. But my job is changing and to keep my position I now need to work until 5 p.m. They’ll be home alone for about two hours each day after school. What can I do to make it safe for them so I won’t have to worry so much?

A:  Great question, and with the beginning of the school year it’s important to address this problem now. I can imagine how anxious you are about letting your kids stay home alone after school for the first time. Those who have already crossed this bridge understand your concerns about safety, not just for the children, but also for the house!

If it helps, please realize that you are in good company with this situation. More than 3 million children younger than 12 years of age stay home alone at least part of each week, and an even greater percentage of teens fend for themselves on school days.

To help make things run smoothly and safely you need to set up some clear, fair ground rules. Have your girls check in with you as soon as they come home. They can call your office phone or your cell phone. If you are unavailable, they can leave a message. When you talk with them, check how their day went, what homework is due, and whether they need to get specific chores accomplished before you come home. I would suggest establishing the rule that the television, TV, computer, phone, and video game player (all recreational electronics, basically) be off limits until their homework and chores are completed. And, if the Internet is allowed, there should be standards to consider, such as setting up parental guidelines for Web sites (including a discussion of sites) and discussing general usage (time allotted, sharing with the sister, IMing friends). You also may need to establish rules for TV viewing, particularly which cable channels they can watch and how much time they can spend watching TV. Many families employ the rule that “no recreational electronics” are to be used until the parent comes home and checks that all homework and chores have been completed. This alleviates sibling battles about who gets the remote control.

Set up guidelines for answering the telephone (letting calls go to the answering machine unless caller ID indicates that a family friend is on the phone) as well as answering the door (best to get them in the habit of not opening it, if it’s not grandma or grandpa, unless an adult is home). With only two hours until you arrive home, I would suggest that your girls stay home and not be allowed to venture into the neighborhood, visit friends or even have friends over. “Things” tend to happen when kids are unsupervised, and your children’s safety as well as your home’s condition are at risk when allowing friends to visit while your kids are unsupervised.

Finally, if you’re worried about damaging your girls’ emotional or psychological growth because they are now “latchkey kids,” you can relax! A study reported by the American Psychological Association noted that the success of latchkey kids depends more on what they are doing with their time after school, rather than the fact that you aren’t there for them. Kids who are allowed to hang out with friends without some form of adult supervision get into significantly more trouble than do those who are kept busy with homework and chores, especially if parents are checking in with them on a consistent basis via telephone.

If you’re still worried about the situation, try to set up adult supervision with a neighborhood mom who is watching her own children — perhaps you can pay her for her time or baby sit her kids during some evening or weekend hours in exchange. Or you can check into after-school programs at the girls’ schools, a local YMCA, or YWCA, or a church. Perhaps their father or one of their grandparents can help out at least a few afternoons per week. They will not only be able to supervise your girls, but they can also help them with their homework completion. And, of course, this is an opportunity for good adult-child quality time.

Dr. Ruth Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.