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Latchkey Children

Latchkey child was a term coined to describe children who wore or carried house keys to school so that they could let themselves into their home when they returned from school. Those children were at home without adult supervision until their parents returned from work, school, or other occupations away from home.

Currently, the term self care is used to refer to elementary and middle school children who are without adult supervision during the after-school hours whether they are at home, at friends' houses, or in public places. Preschool children usually have not been included in studies measuring self care because it is considered inappropriate for preschool children to be unsupervised for any amount of time. However, one national study that included pre-school children found that 67,000 (less than 1 percent of the preschool population) spent some time in self care. Adolescents attending high school also have not been included in studies of self care because researchers and the public consider it developmentally appropriate for high school students to care for themselves after school without direct adult supervision.

Several studies of large nationally representative samples in the United States have measured how many children are in self care by surveying parents about their children's after school care. Those studies have found that a very small percentage of families use self care as the main arrangement for their elementary and middle school age children. For example, researchers estimate that, overall, 12 percent of children between the ages of five and twelve years old care for themselves at least one afternoon per week. That report is probably an underestimate for several reasons. For one, parents have an interest in underreporting self care. Although very few states have laws governing self care, many people do not perceive self care as an optimal arrangement. For another, most families depend on a patchwork of arrangements during the week. The evidence indicates that self care is used for part of the after-school hours either regularly or on occasion by far more than 12 percent of families with elementary school children. For example, a study in one U.S. city found that approximately 33 percent of the third-grade children, 44 percent of the fourth-grade children, and slightly more than half of the fifth-grade children spent some part of the after school hours in self care. A recent estimate of the time lag between when schools are dismissed and when parents return from work suggests that time can amount to twenty to twenty-five hours per week. Self care is one type of arrangement that fills in part of that time for the many families struggling to maintain supervision of their children during the after school hours.

Parental discretion is important in determining when and how much self care children experience. In determining when children can be unsupervised, parents often consider age, emotional maturity, and competence of the child. In general, time spent in self care increases with the age of the child. Most parents gradually transition their children to self care. Families usually start using self care by having their children spend short amounts of time unsupervised after school. As children demonstrate that they are mature enough to handle those short bouts of time alone, most parents increase the frequency and duration of self care about the time that children are entering middle school. Often, children of about ten years of age begin to desire greater autonomy than is afforded by many formal after-school programs. At about that age, children sometimes lobby their parents for more time in self care, especially if the children are dissatisfied with available after-school programs.

More boys than girls experience self care during elementary school, probably because parents tend to be more protective of daughters than sons. However, according to the findings of a large nationally representative study, boys and girls are equally likely to be unsupervised after school during eighth grade.

Family and neighborhood characteristics also are factors affecting when and how often children experience self care. Single parents employed full-time use self care more than dual parent families or than families with part-time adult workers or unemployed adults. Contrary to popular belief, children from families with higher incomes spend more time in self care than children from families with lower incomes. The reason for this is probably related to safety considerations because those families with higher incomes usually live in suburban neighborhoods that the parents rate as being safe. Indeed, urban children are in self care less often than suburban and rural children.

Researchers who have studied self care have described variations in the situations unsupervised children are in after school. Some children are alone, others are with siblings, and yet others are with peers. Generally, children who are with siblings less than fourteen years of age have been considered to be in self care because they are unsupervised by an adult. Some self care children are at home after school. Others are out and about in their neighborhoods and communities. For example, a national study of public libraries found that the vast majority of librarians reported that latchkey children regularly used their libraries as a place to be after school. Other studies in local areas have found that some young adolescents who are unsupervised after school "hang out" with friends at shopping malls, video arcades, parks, and other such public locations.

Teachers and principals have expressed concern about their students who care for themselves after school. Those educators believe that the self-care children are not safe and that the children are at risk for academic and social emotional problems. There is some indication from surveys that the public agrees with them that self-care children are at risk developmentally. Researchers have been interested in investigating the developmental consequences of self care to determine whether those children who experienced self care suffer negative consequences. Surprisingly, despite the concern of educators and the public about safety, few studies have examined the physical dangers of self care. One report from the early 1980s found that self-care children were more likely than supervised children to be injured. No recent studies were found estimating the number of injuries from accidents, fire, or crime when children were unsupervised. Studies from the 1970s and 1980s appeared to report contradictory results about academic, behavioral, and social emotional development associated with self care. Some studies reported that there were no negative effects of self care for children's academic and social emotional adjustment. Other studies reported poorer academic and social-emotional adjustment of children experiencing self care. Since that time, a number of studies described below that were conducted in the 1990s have found that the effects of self care depend on the type and amount of self care, characteristics of the children in self care, and the circumstances in which the children live. Most of the available studies, however, have used small, nonrepresentative samples in one city or state. So, the findings of those studies must be interpreted cautiously.

Characteristics of the children themselves have been found to contribute to outcomes of self care. The Child Development Project conducted in Tennessee and Indiana by Gregory Pettit and his colleagues investigated the associations between self care during first grade or third grade and developmental outcomes in sixth grade. That longitudinal study of 466 children from economically diverse circumstances took children's previous behavioral functioning into account in analyzing the effects of first-grade self care on sixth-grade functioning. The researchers found that, for children who were well adjusted in kindergarten, there was virtually no relationship between self care experienced during first grade and the children's behavior problems in sixth grade. However, sixth-grade children who experienced self care in first grade and who were above average in aggression and acting out behavior in kindergarten had far higher scores on aggression and acting out behavior problem scales than those children who experienced no self care in first grade.

Researchers from the Child Development Project also considered the child's age as a factor. They found that more self care in either first or third grade (second-grade self care was not measured) was associated with negative academic and social development in sixth grade. Children who experienced more self care during the primary grades received lower grades, lower achievement test scores, and lower teacher ratings of social competence in sixth grade than did children who experienced less than three hours of self care per week in first or third grade.

Deborah Lowe Vandell and Jill Posner followed 216 low-income urban children living in a Midwestern industrial city from third grade through fifth grade and examined the adjustment of the children by the children's age and the type of self care children experienced. They found that the amount of time children spent alone in third grade predicted children's behavior problems in both third and fifth grade. However, the amount of time alone in fifth grade did not predict subsequent behavior problems.

Posner and Vandell also investigated the effect of unsupervised time with peers. The amount of unsupervised time children spent with peers predicted behavior problems at home and school as well as lower academic functioning. Like Posner and Vandell, Michele Goyette-Ewing investigated the association between types of self care and developmental consequences. She studied the after-school experiences of suburban seventh graders. Those unsupervised children who were "hanging out" with peers were more likely to report behavior problems, alcohol use, susceptibility to negative peer pressure, and lower school achievement than were children who were at home alone or with siblings. Laurence Steinberg found that, among unsupervised middle school students, those who hung out with peers at malls and other public locations were more susceptible to peer pressure than the students who were at a friend's house or at home. Another study of sixth graders conducted by Nancy Galambos and Jennifer Maggs found that girls who hung out with peers after school were more likely to report engaging in problem behaviors than were boys who hung out with peers after school. Taken together, these studies suggest that unsupervised time with peers is detrimental to both the academic and behavioral adjustment of children throughout elementary and middle school.

The amount of time young adolescents spend in self care has been related to their academic, behavioral, and social emotional functioning. The Michigan Middle Start study included 46,000 young adolescents who reported how often and how many hours they were without adult supervision after school. The researchers found that the amount of self care each day mattered a great deal in predicting outcomes. Those young adolescents who experienced self care for less than three hours at a time did not differ from young adolescents who were supervised at all times on depression, self-esteem, behavior problems, or academic success. However, young adolescents who were in self care more than three hours at a time had dramatically lower adjustment scores on all measures when compared to young adolescents who experienced less than three hours of self care. A study of middle school students by Peter Mulhall and his colleagues found that young adolescents in self care more than two days per week used alcohol far more often than young adolescents who were always supervised by an adult after school. Those young adolescents who were not monitored two or more days per week got drunk after school four times more often than their supervised peers. Yet another study, by researchers in Southern California, found that those young adolescents who were unsupervised more than eleven hours per week were truant from school 1.5 times more often than young adolescents who were not unsupervised after school. Researchers who analyzed data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) of 1988, a large nationally representative sample of more than 20,000 eighth-grade students, examined associations between amount of self care and the academic performance and after school activities of those students. Those eighth graders who were unsupervised for more than one hour at a time had lower academic achievement than students who were supervised more often.

One reason that self care might contribute to problematic development is that there are limited activities available for children when they are home alone. For example, the NELS study found that television watching was related to the amount of self care such that more hours spent unsupervised after school predicted more hours of television watching. Television watching has been related to self care in several other studies, as well. There have been many studies on the consequences of watching television for children's academic achievement and aggression. In her longitudinal qualitative study of children in Boston, Deborah Belle found that the children were more likely to be lonely, bored, afraid, and unengaged in productive activities during the time they spent in self care than when supervised. Those negative feelings might be related to rules parents establish for safety purposes such as requiring children to stay in the house alone.

Family and neighborhood characteristics have been related to whether self care is problematic for children. Self care has been associated consistently with problematic adjustment among children who live in distressed circumstances such as low-income families and dangerous inner city neighborhoods. However, self care has not been shown to be detrimental to the development of children from middle class families who live in rural or suburban communities. The Child Development Project investigated associations between self care during first grade and developmental outcomes in sixth grade. The researchers found that the relationships between first-grade self care and sixth-grade externalizing behavior problems (aggression and delinquency) as reported by their teachers (who used a standardized checklist of behavior problems) were more pronounced for children from low-income families than for children from middle-income families. Nancy Marshall and her colleagues studied the after school arrangements of 206 urban first-through fourth-grade children in a multiracial sample in Boston. The children's families ranged in socioeconomic status from low to middle income. The researchers asked parents to report about their children's externalizing and internalizing behavior problems using scales developed for that purpose. Externalizing behavior problems were measured by parent reports about the conduct disorders, restlessness, disorganization, and hyperactivity of the children; internalizing behavior problems were measured by parent report about the anxiety-shyness and psychosomatic symptoms of the children. Time spent in self care was associated with externalizing behavior problems for the children from lower but not middle income families. Internalizing problems were not related to self care among children from either lower-or middle-income families.

In cross-cultural studies of children conducted in traditional societies, some anthropologists have described developmental benefits for children who care for younger siblings. There have been few investigations of possible developmental benefits of self care in the United States. Goyette-Ewing did investigate that question and failed to find any developmental benefits associated with self care. Self-care children were not found to be more competent or mature than their counterparts who were supervised.

In conclusion, the developmental impact of self care appears to depend on the circumstances. Research findings suggests that child characteristics, type and amount of self care, and family circumstances are factors in the outcomes of self care. Younger children and children who were experiencing behavior problems before self care began appear to be more adversely affected by it. Children and young adolescents who hang out with peers and who spend long amounts of time unsupervised also seem to experience more negative outcomes than other children. Children from low-income urban families also appear to be at greater risk from self care.


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MULLER, CHANDRA. 1991. "Latch-key Children in the Late 80's: Family Composition, Working Mothers, and After School Supervision." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago IL (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 338357).

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PETTIT, GREGORY S., et al. 1999. "The Impact of After-School Peer Contact on Early Adolescent Externalizing Problems Is Moderated by Parental Monitoring, Perceived Neighborhood Safety and Prior Adjustment." Child Development 70:768–778.

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