I Want My Sons to Be Latchkey Kids
Why I leave them home alone.
by Steph Thompson
March 29, 2010
The first time I allowed my son to let himself in, he was six. Okay, I’m probably lying, it was probably more like five. I was enjoying a bit of sun on a bench in our Brooklyn apartment building’s closed-in courtyard, and he wanted to go upstairs to play on the computer. Back then, unlike now at nearly 9, the only thing he knew how to get to was PBSkids.org. He only had to walk up two flights of stairs and past three neighbors’ apartments – neighbors we knew. I started to hand him the keys.
“Wait,” I said as I pulled the keys back. “Can I trust you to be good?”
He nodded with only a slightly sly smirk peeking out from his freckled face.
Some neighbors were shocked. One, a mom with a daughter the same age, chewed on her nails and offered up anxiously, “What if he’s up there on the stairs and he’s fallen, screaming, and can’t come down?”
I laughed at the unlikelihood of the scenario. “I think he’ll be fine. It’ll be good for him.”
I wasn’t wrong. When I eventually went back upstairs, he was playing happily. He had made himself a snack – an apple, a granola bar, and water – and felt very grown-up. And he was mellow, probably more than he would have been had I been circling around, hovering and hand-wringing.
A light-bulb went off: leaving kids alone at home is not a bad thing, not something to hide guiltily from fearful neighbors; it is a good thing, a necessary thing. Kids need to be told they are responsible enough to handle things if we expect them to ever actually be responsible. We parents today are all too worried. And to what end? About what?
Of course it hasn’t always been this way. My inlaws shook their heads, confused over the furor when Lenore Skenazy bravely admitted in April, 2008 in the New York Sun that she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself. In the ’70s, when New York was filled with drug addicts and prostitutes roaming freely, they had sent my husband across Central Park on the bus to school, alone, when he was just 7. He only got mugged once – by an older kid for his allowance. Now my in-laws wonder why my nephew wasn’t allowed to be released from school without an adult to walk the half block home until he turned 10. What has happened?
Part of the shift occurred in 1983 when psychologist Lynette Long coined the term “latchkey” with her book Latchkey Child: a Complete Guide for Latchkey Kids and Their Working Parents. The book launched a small army of research and debate that has raged now for nearly three decades on the inherent threat of leaving kids alone.
Long acknowledges that the world has changed since she wrote her book (and that cell phones and GPS locators offer added security), but she still balked at my sending my young son upstairs alone. “What if he had tripped on the coffee table or run into someone in the hall, someone who was drunk?” she suggested. I laughed. Most likely the “drunk” he’d run into would be me – or my neighbors across the hall who sometimes come over to share wine with us.
Nonetheless, she was adamant that children six and nine (the ages of my boys now) are too young to be left alone: “Having interviewed hundreds and hundreds of latchkey kids, things happen innocently. A curtain blows into the toaster when they’re making toast, or someone comes to the door and easily can deceive a child.”
I’ll admit that these things can happen, but they most likely won’t, and how can we keep kids helmeted and hand-cuffed to a chair where we can watch them 24/7 and expect them to grow up anything but helpless victims? Kathy Whitham, a Brooklyn-based behavior parenting coach concurs: “When you’re overly fearful, you are teaching your child to be afraid rather than how to feel safe in the world. This compromises their ability to develop judgment and to negotiate their way safely in the outside world.”
Building independence, a necessity in life, is worth the very unlikely risk of something going horribly awry in the few moments that a child is left in charge.
So I fight the neighbors’ looks and comments, I fight my husband’s nail-biting concerns, I fight my own internal neuroses and fear built from what I hear sidelong, and I leave my precious boys alone sometimes (and more and more often, for longer and longer stretches). I do it for the same reason that I turn my back as I let them climb high into the air on that crazy structure in San Francisco last summer: I know that my hovering will only undermine them, that my wails of worry will only serve to make them think they can’t do it, make them afraid to do it. And I want them to learn how to climb safely, I want them to learn to take care of themselves in our home cautiously. I tell them they can do it and, you know what? Then they can. They know I think that, because I put my money where my mouth is and leave them alone to try.
I have a friend who grew up in a war-torn country and, to protect himself, was given a gun when he was not yet ten. One time he was eying the privileged Park Slope kids around us, and I told him not to be so envious. “At least you were armed against a real enemy. These kids’ parents just make them afraid – afraid of everything. And, what’s worse, they don’t arm them.”
- Home Alone: When can I leave my child by himself?
- Excerpt: Free-Range Kids
- How can I make my clingy kid more independent?
This article was written by Steph Thompson for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.