When It's Just You After School
Did you ever see the movie "Home Alone"? The lead character, a young boy, gets left behind while his parents go on vacation. Now, that's not too realistic, but plenty of kids are home alone after school until their parents get home.
The boy in the movie had many different feelings about being alone. Sometimes he was happy about having the house to himself. Sometimes he was lonely and missed his family. Sometimes he was afraid. And sometimes he was just plain bored.
Are you home alone after school? No one knows how many kids are home after school without an adult, but they know the number is in the millions. Kids who regularly take care of themselves are sometimes called "latchkey" kids.
This nickname got its start in the 1940s, during World War II. The men were away at war, so many women had to take jobs in factories to keep the country going. With both parents away, lots of kids went home to empty houses after school. Latchkey kids wore a house key around their necks and this key opened the front door or latch.
Today, it's common for both parents to work or for kids to live with just one parent, so a new generation of kids is spending some time alone after school. Many schools now have after-school programs, but some don't, and in some cases, families may not be able to afford the extra expense.
So you and your mom or dad have decided you're mature enough to take care of yourself after school. Every weekday, you'll come home, let yourself in, and then what? Good question! This is why you'll need to set up some rules — before you're home alone.
Some families put up a list of rules where everyone can see them, like on the refrigerator door. Other families write out a contract and have each member sign it, saying they agree to the rules. Or a family might just go over the rules out loud.
But whatever method you use, there are a lot of questions to talk about, like:
- Should you call mom or dad as soon as you get home?
- Are you allowed to watch TV, DVDs, and videos, or play computer games? If so, which ones and for how long?
- Should homework be done first, even before chores?
- Can friends come over? If so, how many?
- What can you eat if you want a snack?
- Can you go outside, and if so, where?
- Which appliances can be used? (microwave, computer, etc.)
- Which chores need to be done and by when?
- Should your parent call home just before leaving work each day? For example, would it help to have a heads-up in time to finish any last-minute chores before they arrive?
Once you've decided on the rules, you and your parent may find it helpful to make a schedule. That way, you'll know what's expected of you each day. A schedule might look like this:
- 3:30-3:40 — Call Mom or Dad.
- 3:40-4:00 — Change clothes and have a snack.
- 4:00-4:45 — Do homework.
- 4:45-5:30 — FREE TIME!
- 5:30 — Set the table for dinner.
- 5:45 — Mom or Dad is home.
Knowing how to stay safe is just as important as knowing the family rules. Again, this is something you need to talk over with your mom, dad, or both of them. Go over safety rules for the kitchen if you'll be doing any cooking while you're home alone. It's a good idea to practice what you would do in a real emergency, just in case anything ever happens.
Kids who are home alone might worry that someone could break into the house and hurt them. The good news is that this is very unlikely. But keeping the doors and windows locked will help you to stay safe.
Decide with your mom or dad what to do if the phone rings or if someone knocks at the door. It's never a good idea to tell someone that you're home by yourself. And if you get home and the door is open or a window's smashed, don't even peek inside. Instead, go to a neighbor you trust for help.
Other kinds of emergencies could come up, too, like a toilet overflowing, a fire, or you or a sibling might get sick or hurt. Just in case, you'll want to know:
- how to dial 911
- your address and phone number
- the name, location, and phone number where your mom or dad works
- the name, phone number, and address of a trusted neighbor
- the name, phone number, and address of another emergency contact person, such as a grandparent or family friend
A Little Lonely
It's a good idea to talk with your mom or dad about how you feel about being home alone, especially if you feel lonely or scared when you're home alone. They might be able to give you some ideas or solutions that will make you feel more at ease. Maybe you can go home with a friend once a week or a neighbor can start checking on you. Sometimes a kid just isn't ready to stay home alone and other arrangements need to be made.
Keeping busy with homework, chores, and play can make your "home alone" time go quickly. But you might find yourself wondering what to do next. The trick is to think about your choices ahead of time. You might even want to keep a list of stuff you like to do. Need some ideas to get you started?
- Read a book or magazine.
- Work on a hobby or try a new one.
- Listen to music, sing, or play an instrument.
- Write a letter or an email or phone a friend.
- Write a story full of made-up adventures of what happened to you when you were home alone — and don't forget to give it a happy ending!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013
© 1995-2014 The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth. All rights reserved.