Communication One Key to Happy Latchkey Children

AUBURN, Ala.—Parent-child communication appears to be an important key to having happy, secure latchkey children, according to the results of an Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES) study.

Jackie Mize, associate professor of Family and Child Development at Auburn University who headed the AAES study, explained that the term "latchkey children" refers to children who regularly stay at home alone or with siblings and without adult supervision.

According to Mize, many of today's families are opting for the latchkey routine because of a lack of affordable, accessible child care for school-age children. Some two to six million children, ranging in age from six to 13, are estimated to stay at home alone for anywhere from a few minutes to several hours a day while their parents work. Because many parents are reluctant to acknowledge their use of the latchkey option, these estimates may be far lower than the actual number.

Concern about the riskiness and appropriateness of latchkey situations has been voiced by educators, parents and others. Though many feel this is a less-than-ideal option, little is known about the factors that make a latchkey situation successful, and the initial studies conducted on this subject yielded conflicting results.

"Some of the first studies found that kids are doing okay in latchkey situations," said Mize. "Other studies found differences between latchkey children and those who have adult supervision. Those studies found that latchkey kids were afraid more often and were more susceptible to peer pressure and delinquency."

"It may be that just being a latchkey child does not, in itself, put a child at risk," Mize continued. "There are other factors, combined with latchkey status, that may put children at risk."

Mize's study concentrated on identifying some of those factors. She theorized that a child's community, a child's social skills and tendencies, and the quality of communication between parents and children could influence the success of a latchkey situation. To test these concepts, she focused on rural latchkey children, in part because affordable, available child care is often scarcer in rural communities than in urban areas.

Questionnaires asking about the safety of the respondents' neighborhoods, the parents' childbearing patterns, and after-school child care arrangements were sent to rural families. The questionnaires, which were answered by both children and parents, also asked how comfortable and satisfied respondents were with latchkey arrangements.

Children responded positively to questions about how frightened they felt being home alone. Nearly all (94 percent) of the children surveyed said they sometimes or always felt confident that they could take care of themselves when home alone, although 70 percent of the children admitted that they sometimes felt frightened.

The study also suggested that different factors affect how comfortable parents and children are with latchkey situations. Parents who felt their neighborhood was safe and had an affectionate relationship with their children felt more comfortable about their respective latchkey situations. Children's levels of comfort with latchkey situations varied depending on the child's age, the amount of time they spent at home alone and the amount of involvement the child had in the decision making process.

Interestingly, children who were allowed to help make decisions in all aspects of family life--from choosing restaurants to managing their own allowances--tended to feel more secure about being home alone. Allowing children to make some of their own decisions or be involved in the process of decision making, while still monitoring the choices and actions of the children, seemed to have a positive impact on latchkey children.

Mize believes this is an indication that good-parent child communication can be advantageous to latchkey children. She noted other studies have shown that parents who do not monitor their children's activities and who use a totalitarian style of parenting may face more problems from latchkey situations.

"Based on these results, we can conclude that, if you have a latchkey child, monitoring his or her activities is important and limits should be set, but the child also should have a chance to have input in decisions that affect him or her," she said.

Mize will conduct a follow-up this study later this year to learn more about latchkey children. She noted that families of latchkey children sometimes don't respond to surveys because they are reluctant to discuss their personal latchkey arrangements. She urged families to return future surveys so perhaps more can be learned about how to make the most of a latchkey situation.


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Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station
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Auburn, AL    36849
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March 4, 1992

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