Confessions of a Latchkey Kid
Growing up in small-town Virginia, I spent many, many unsupervised afternoons at home with my brother and sister while our parents were at work. By most standards, we were good kids. We were respectful to our elders and we earned good grades in school. But, left to our own devises, we weren’t above a little mischief.
We watched television shows we weren’t supposed to. We cooked on the stove even though we’d been told not to. We played with neighborhood children of “questionable character.” In short, we explored and experimented the way children between the ages of 6 and 11 do.
I remember the afternoon we carved up Ken’s leg with the biggest, sharpest kitchen knife we could find. My sister and I wanted to see how Barbie’s legs worked. What made them bend at the knee? Were there bones in there? But neither of us was willing to sacrifice the limb of our beloved in the name of research. Ken, we decided, would go under the knife in her place. So we whittled his leg down, fleshy, pink strip by fleshy, pink strip, until we uncovered the white plastic skeleton underneath.
It was fascinating, and we were terrified that we’d get caught. Like I said, we were pretty good kids. Our thresholds for rule-breaking and unsafe behavior were low. We took some risks, but we were smart and we were lucky.
Some of my friends, however, tell a different story. Not surprisingly, many who had been home alone as adolescents admitted to experimenting with alcohol, marijuana and sexual activity. But my informal poll also turned up the following very surprising latchkey pastimes and mishaps — all from kids younger than 14:
• “We roasted marshmallows over the stovetop.”
• “I shot coke bottles with a BB gun in the backyard.”
• “I accidentally electrocuted myself and had to walk to the emergency room.”
• “I lit firecrackers with a blowtorch.”
• “I was sunbathing on our roof and I almost fell off.”
Mischief like that is downright dangerous. Mischief like puts kids in the hospital. Mischief like that is what scares parents about leaving their children — even their mature, responsible children — alone. And they’re right to be scared.
Today’s latchkey kids face even greater threats than we did. Mischief aside, they’re dealing with high-traffic neighborhood streets, Internet dangers and highly inappropriate television programming. And the lure of drugs and alcohol is more powerful than ever.
Make no mistake. Even the good kids are struggling to make good choices. They need your help. If your kids are going to be home alone, make sure they know the rules. Set clear and consistent safety guidelines and be firm when it comes to violations.
Make sure you or another trusted adult check in regularly, and make sure your kids know how to get help fast if they need it. Kathleen Conroy’s article “Home Alone in North Carolina” can help you determine if your kids are old enough to stay home alone. And, if they are, her tips and advice will help you prepare them well.