Latchkey kid

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A child with keys to her home hanging from her neck

A latchkey kid, or latchkey child, is a child who returns to an empty home after school (or other activities) or a child who is often left at home with no supervision because their parents are away at work. Such a child can be any age, alone or with siblings who are also under the age of maturity for their community.[1]

History of the term[edit]

The term refers to the latchkey of a door to a house or apartment. 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 seems to first appear in a CBC Radio program called "Discussion Club – Topic: How War Affects Canadian Children" in 1942,[2] due to the phenomenon of children being left home alone during World War II,[3] when the father would be enlisted into the armed forces and the mother would need to get a job. Given that the "Discussion Club" participants are all familiar with the term and allude to it being in colloquial usage, it likely predates 1942. In general, the term latchkey designates "those children between the ages of five and thirteen who care for themselves after the school day until their parents or guardians return home".[4]

More specifically for their purposes, the San Marino (CA) Public Library has defined a Library Latchkey Child as "one who on a regular basis is required by their parents or guardian to remain at the public library for extended periods of time after school in lieu of day care. 'Regular basis' is defined as three or more days per week. 'Extended period' is defined as two or more hours per day" (American Library Association 12).[5]

The term latchkey kid became commonplace in the 1970s and 1980s to describe members of Generation X who, according to a 2004 marketing study, "went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Latchkey kids were prevalent during this time, a result of increased divorce rates and increased maternal participation in the workforce at a time before childcare options outside the home were widely available.[6][7][8][9] These latchkey children, referred to as "day orphans" in the 1984 documentary, To Save Our Children to Save Our Schools, mainly came from middle or upper-class homes. The higher the educational attainment of the parents, the higher the odds the children of this time would be latchkey kids.[10][11]

Effects on children[edit]

The effects of being a latchkey child differ with age. Loneliness, boredom and fear are most common for those younger than ten years of age. In the early teens, there is a greater susceptibility to peer pressure, potentially resulting in such behavior as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and smoking.[12][13] The behaviors might stem from "unspent energy, peer pressure to misbehave, or hostility because of the lack of appropriate adult attention".[14] In one study, middle school students left home alone for more than three hours a day reported higher levels of behavioral problems, higher rates of depression, and lower levels of self-esteem than other students.[15]

If, however, there are enough stimuli at home, such as books, computers, games, solitary hobbies such as modelmaking, etc., the negative effects can be averted. The child may learn independent lifestyle, such as making meals, very early.[16][17]

Socioeconomic status and length of time left alone can bring forth other negative effects. Children from lower income families are associated with greater externalizing issues (such as conduct disorders and hyperactivity) and academic problems. This association was weaker for children from middle income families as compared to their supervised peers.[18] In 2000, a German PISA study found no significant differences in the scholastic performance between "latchkey kids" and kids in a "nuclear family".[19] We can see these effects on children when their parents are not around, whether they be at work or just being plain neglectful.

Positive effects of being a latchkey child include independence and self-reliance at a young age. Deborah Belle, author of The After-School Lives of Children: Alone and with Others While Parents Work suggests that being left home alone may be a better alternative to staying with baby-sitters or older siblings.[20] Latchkey parenting allows for guardians to gain more money if they work while their kids are caring for themselves.

Legal issues[edit]

The legality of the latchkey children's "alone time" varies with country, state and local area laws. 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. However, some states do have specific age restrictions. Yet most of the US states have no minimum age for leaving kids unsupervised.[21]

Parents can be held accountable by child welfare, child protective services 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 considerations made such a choice inappropriate. Legal issues also continue to be important concerns for those who work in libraries. They worry about the potential liability should an unattended child be hurt, molested or abducted while at the facility. This issue becomes critical, particularly at closing time when "parents who are late picking up their children also create safety and possibly legal problems."[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 424. ISBN 9780415252256.
  2. ^ Replayed in CBC Broadcast "Rewind" on 2014-10-23
  3. ^ "The Maven's Word of the Day". Random House. 1996-10-24. Retrieved 2006-06-16.
  4. ^ Benne, M. Principles of children's services in public libraries. Chicago: American Library Association, 1991
  5. ^ American Library Association (ALA). Association for Library Services to Children's Division. "Latchkey children" in the public library." Chicago, American Library Association.
  6. ^ Clack, Erin. "Study probes generation gap.(Hot copy: an industry update)". HighBeam Research. Archived from the original on 3 May 2016. Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  7. ^ Thomas, Susan (21 October 2011). "All Apologies: Thank You for the 'Sorry'". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  8. ^ "A Teacher's Guide to Generation X". Edutopia. Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  9. ^ Thomas, Susan (9 July 2011). "The Divorce Generation". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2 April 2016.
  10. ^ Toch, Thomas (19 September 1984). "The Making of 'To Save Our Schools, To Save Our Children': A Conversation With Marshall Frady". Education Week. Retrieved 17 April 2016.
  11. ^ Corry, John (4 September 1984). "A LOOK AT SCHOOLS IN U.S." The New York Times. Retrieved 17 April 2016.
  12. ^ Barlow, David; Durand, V. Mark (2008). Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach. Cengage Learning. p. 414.
  13. ^ "Early teens increasingly prone to smoke and drink alcohol." The Korea Herald. May 24, 1999.
  14. ^ American Library Association (ALA). Association for Library Services to Children's Division. "Latchkey Children" in the public library." Chicago, American Library Association.
  15. ^ Mertens, Steven B; Flowers, Nancy (May 2003). "Should Middle Grades Students Be Left Alone After School?" (PDF). Middle School Journal. 34 (5): 57–61. doi:10.1080/00940771.2003.11494517. S2CID 36628834. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 5, 2006.
  16. ^ "The Benefits Of Being A Latchkey Kid". AttentionMax. 2012-07-06. Retrieved 2023-11-16.
  17. ^ Leung, A. K.; Robson, W. L.; Cho, H.; Lim, S. H. (1996). "Latchkey children". Journal of the Royal Society of Health. 116 (6): 356–359. doi:10.1177/146642409611600603. PMID 8987338. S2CID 23192189.
  18. ^ Marshall, Nancy (June 1997). "After-school time and children's behavioral adjustment". Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (Wayne State University. Press). 43 (3): 497–514. Retrieved 23 May 2016.
  19. ^ "Zusammenfassung zentraler Befunde" (PDF). PISA (in German). KMK. 2000. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-07-20. Retrieved 2006-08-03.
  20. ^ Belle, Deborah (1999-04-01). The After-School Lives of Children: Alone and With Others While Parents Work. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-2325-5.
  21. ^ "Legal Age Restrictions For Latchkey Kids".
  22. ^ Smith, K. Serving the difficult customer: a how to do it manual for library staff. New York: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.

External links[edit]