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Latch-Key Children Home-Alone

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Out of economic necessity, some families may desire to let their school-aged children be at home alone after school before parents or other caregivers get home from work. As much as possible, however, this decision to let children be unsupervised for several hours each weekday should be well thought-out rather than based on simple convenience. If children are not mature enough to handle themselves without supervision, such freedom could become dangerous to them.

house keyThe American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should not be left home alone before the age of 12. Children younger than 12 should be supervised after school at a school-based after-school program, local recreation center, or boys and girls club. Often, such after-school programs are offered at low or no cost. If a trustworthy institutionally sponsored program is not available, or not affordable, parents may instead arrange to trade child care duties with other trusted parents in the neighborhood. For instance, Nancy may be willing to watch Jan's kids for 2 hours after school on some days if Jan is willing to watch Nancy's kids on Saturday nights.

If children younger than 12 simply must be left at home alone, parents should at minimum make sure that the children know:

  • how to get in and out of the house and how to operate any locks that may be present
  • have memorized their phone number and address
  • know from memory how to reach their parents or other caregivers at work or other locations
  • know who to call if they can't reach Mom or Dad
  • and know how to access the Emergency Services Telephone Operator (911 in the United States).

In addition, parents need to communicate, and children need to show that they understand, any house rules for how they should act when home alone. For example, parents may instruct their children to not answering the phone or to not answer the door unless the person on the other side is an approved caregiver. Parents will want to know that children understand how to safely operate dangerous household appliances such as stoves, ovens or other electrical tools, or have agreed (and can be trusted to keep their word) that they will not use such appliances or tools while home alone. Parents may want to restrict children to certain snack choices and/or certain activities ((e.g., homework, chores, and television). Parents may also want to take steps to lock down their home Internet connection so as to block children from accessing undesirable websites while parents are not around. Parents will want to check on children by phone or text message with some frequency so as to keep it in the children's mind that parents are still parenting even though they are not physically present. As much as is possible, parents should work to limit the time children spend alone, at least while children are younger.