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A Work & Life Article

Latchkey Kids

Know the Law

Large numbers of children in this country and elsewhere come home after school to empty apartments and homes. These children, often called “latchkey kids,” are responsible for their own well-being and entertainment during after-school hours. Many working parents find this a source of anxiety and worry.

Before allowing a child to stay home alone or care for younger siblings, parents need to be aware of the guidelines for child supervision in their community. Typically, these guidelines take into account a variety of factors, including, but not limited to:

  • The child’s age before they may be left alone at home
  • The child’s mental, emotional and physical development

Guidelines for Leaving Children Alone

Do you know how old a child must be to be left alone at home? Many states and counties have strict laws that govern latchkey kids. In Montgomery County, Maryland, no child under the age of eight is to be left without supervision. A child that is between eight and 12 may be left alone for brief periods, but may not care for children under the age of eight. In Fairfax County, Virginia, guidelines say that below the age of seven, a child should not be left alone for any period of time.

Children ages eight to ten may be alone for up to 90 minutes. Above age eleven, the child may be alone for up to three hours, but not at night. In Arlington County, Virginia, children under the age of six must not be left unsupervised. Children ages seven through nine may be left alone for no more than 90 minutes. These are just some examples of how regulations vary from place to place. To learn more call the Child Protective Services or local government in your area.

Children should not be left alone at any time if they have medical or emotional problems that would impair their judgment and safety. It is important that children of all ages know what to do to reach a responsible adult in an emergency.

Guidelines for Child Sitters

In Fairfax County, the minimum recommended age for a child sitter is a “mature” thirteen years of age. The sitter must be fifteen or older to care for a child under the age of four. The laws in the District of Columbia, according to one agency require a child to be twelve years old, but another D.C. agency reported the age to be eighteen. In Arlington County, children ages eleven and twelve may babysit for children ages four and older. Responsible children over the age of thirteen may babysit infants and children under the age of four.

Useful Tips for Latchkey Kids

If your child is ready for self-care, there are many ways you can help him or her have safer and more positive experiences after school. Here are some suggestions:

Safety First

  • Check your home for safety risks
  • Post a list of emergency numbers near each telephone
  • Assemble a first-aid kit with your children’s help
  • Develop and practice fire escape plans

When Your Child Arrives Home

  • Encourage your child to take the same route to and from school each day

Don’t let them wear their name or keys in a visible place

  • Counsel them to come directly home
  • If possible, have them walk with friends
  • Establish a check-in routine so a responsible adult knows of their arrival
  • If your child calls you at work, develop a back-up plan in case you are not available

When They Are Approached by a Stranger

  • Discuss with your child how to respond to strangers
  • Have your child practice saying “NO!” and getting away from a stranger

Practice Situations

  • Talk with your child about how to handle different situations
  • Have your child practice as many “what if this happened?” situations:
    • When they lose their key
    • Someone they don’t know knocks at the door
    • They receive a prank telephone call
    • They are approached by someone they don’t know over the internet
    • A sibling gets injured or feels sick
    • A pet needs help

Dealing with Boredom

  • Have your child make a list of activities
  • Suggest books to read, TV programs to watch
  • Get them started with a hobby

Dealing with Loneliness

  • Talk with your child about feeling lonely
  • Make sure they understand why you are not home
  • If possible arrange for your child to visit you at the office once a year
  • Have a trusted friend come over to play
  • Leave playful notes of encouragement in the house
  • Consider a pet if your child is mature enough to care for one