SOURCE: US DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
AUTHOR: Ellen B. Gray
SOURCE: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education
ABSTRACT: Discussed are the number of latchkey children in the United States,
effects of self-care on children, preparatory programs for self-care,
effectiveness of latchkey programs, and alternatives to self-care.
The majority of children in this country are now growing up in families in
which both parents or the only parent works outside of the home. It has become
commonplace in our society for children to take care of themselves for periods
of time every day. Just how common this phenomenon is is a matter of some
dispute. While recent census data suggest that only 7.2 percent of children
between the ages of 5 and 13 -- about two million -- spend time in self-care,
many experts estimate that over a quarter of the children who are between 6 and
14 years old spend time caring for themselves, most of them regularly.
EFFECTS OF SELF-CARE ON CHILDREN
Not much is known about the adequacy or effects of these self-care
arrangements. Experts are just beginning to question the results of children
being left alone or in the care of an older sibling on a regular basis. Their
conclusions vary. Some are sanguine about the effect on children's
--Galambos and Garbarino (1983) found no difference in academic achievement or
school adjustment between small-town fifth and seventh graders in self-care and
their adult-supervised peers.
--Rodman, Pratto, and Nelson (1985) found no difference in self-esteem, social
skills, or sense of control over their own lives between fourth-grade children
in self-care and fourth graders supervised by parents.
--Hedlin and her colleagues (1986) studied 1200 children in kindergarten
through eighth grade, and found that 80% of the children in self-care said that
they loved it or usually liked it.
--Vandell's study of 349 Dallas third graders (1986) showed no differences in
parents', peers' or childrens' ratings of the social and study skills of those
who went home to their mothers as opposed to those in latchkey situations.
Other studies have reached very different conclusions, however:
--Woods (1972) reported that the low-income urban fifth graders in self-care
whom she studied had more academic and social problems than those in
traditional after-school arrangements.
--Steinberg's study (1986) of fifth, sixth, eighth, and ninth graders showed
that the more removed from adult supervision adolescents are, the more they are
susceptible to peer pressure to commit antisocial acts.
--Thomas Long (in press) found that as children spend more time unattended in
their homes, the incidence of experimentation with alcohol and sex increases.
It should be noted that these studies dealt with different age groups,
community characteristics, and outcome measures, and therefore are not strictly
comparable. They also do not deal with a question many people have about the
effect of self-care on children: What is the emotional impact?
PREPARATORY PROGRAMS FOR SELF-CARE
A number of educational curricula have been developed to prepare children to
care for themselves. These programs provide information, develop skills, and
encourage communication within families about child self-care. Most are
targeted to children who already spend time alone, but at least one ("I'm in
Charge") facilitates decision-making about whether to place a particular child
in self-care. Seventeen of these programs and books are listed in a booklet
published by the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (1986) cited
below in the For More Information section.
EFFECTIVENESS OF PROGRAMS FOR LATCHKEY CHILDREN
Until recently, almost nothing was known about the effectiveness of programs
designed to prepare children for self-care. One of the few evaluations of a
program for teaching self-care skills which has been reported in the literature
suggests the value of a specific kind of training program. Jones and Haney
(1984) found that six 40-minute sessions brought the fire safety skills
mastery level of 7- to 10-year-old children from almost nothing to nearly 100
percent. Gray (in review) found that a program designed to prepare latchkey
children for self-care increased parent-child communication and agreement about
safety and other self-care issues. The program also increased the children's
confidence, but their loneliness persisted.
ALTERNATIVES TO SELF-CARE
Some families do not have to place their children in self-care but choose to do
so anyway for any of a number of reasons. But for other families, self-care is
the only recourse. Single parents who cannot afford supervised care, or who
live in communities where supervised care is not available, must leave their
children alone. Concern about this situation has stimulated action on many
fronts. The Dependent Care Grants Program of the federal government, currently
authorized for fiscal years 1987 through 1990 at $20 million per year, is a
block grant for school-age child care and dependent care information and
referral. Sixty percent of the funds from these grants--which were granted in
1986 to every state but South Dakota (which didn't apply)--is slated to go to
program development, and 40% to information and referral.
Concern has prompted action on the state level as well. New York, for example,
passed legislation to make $300,000 available to its communities to stimulate
the development of new programs that provide care and supervision for
The greatest effort in this area is being expended in local communities,
however. Nonprofit agencies and local corporations are starting to provide
after-school care, and some community hospitals even provide sick child day
It is clear that many children are currently in self-care. The exact number is
not known, perhaps in part because this is such an emotional issue for some
family members that they cannot be completely candid about it. Self-care is
necessary at this point in our history because our social institutions have not
kept pace with the "feminization of the workforce," but there is nevertheless
much concern about whether self-care is good for children. Research on this
issue is inconclusive. Among other things, this concern has prompted
development of curricula for latchkey children. Although there is little
research on the effectiveness of these programs, there is some suggestion that
they do a better job of imparting information than dealing with feelings. All
levels of the government and the private sector are responding to the need for
school-age child care, but this response is slow and, as yet, inadequate. The
issue of latchkey children is a sensitive one, and promises to be so for some
time to come.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Coolsen, P., M. Seligson, and J. Garbarino. WHEN SCHOOL'S OUT AND NOBODY'S
HOME. National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, 1986.
Galambos, N., and J. Garbarino. "Identifying the Missing Links in the Study of
Latchkey Children." CHILDREN TODAY 12 (1983): 2-4.
Gray, E. EFFECTIVENESS OF AN EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM TO PREPARE LATCHKEY CHILDREN
FOR SELF-CARE. Interview.
Hedlin, D., K. Hannes, R. Saito, A. Goldman, and D. Knich. SUMMARY OF THE
FAMILY'S VIEW OF AFTER SCHOOL TIME. St. Paul: University of Minnesota, Center
for Youth Development and Research, July, 1986.
Jones, R., and J. Haney. "A Primary Preventive Approach to the Acquisition and
Maintenance of Fire Emergency Responding: Comparison of External and
Self-Instruction Strategies." JOURNAL OF COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY 12 (1984):
Kansas Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. "I'M IN CHARGE." 1981.
Long, T., and L. Long. LATCHKEY CHILDREN: THE CHILD'S VIEW OF SELF-CARE.
Urbana, Illinois: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood
Education. 1981. ED 211 229.
Long, T., and L. Long. THE HANDBOOK FOR LATCHKEY CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS.
New York: Arbor House, 1983.
Long, T., and L. Long. Manuscript in press. New York: Time, Inc., 1987.
Rodman, H., D. Pratto, and R. Nelson. "Child Care Arrangements and Children's
Functioning: A Comparison of Self-Care and Adult-Care Children." DEVELOPMENTAL
PSYCHOLOGY 21 (1985): 413-418.
Steinberg, L. "Latchkey Children and Susceptibility to Peer Pressure: An
Ecological Analysis." DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY 22 (1986): 433-439.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. AFTER SCHOOL CARE OF THE SCHOOL-AGE CHILD. Current
Population Reports, Series P-23, No. 149, January, 1987.
Vandell, D., and M. Corasiniti. Presentation at the 1985 annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1985)
Woods, M. "The Unsupervised Child of the Working Mother." DEVELOPMENTAL
PSYCHOLOGY 6 (1972): 14-25.