What is a Latchkey Kid?

Jada Bradley, Peggy Olsen
  • Author
    Jada Bradley

    Jada Bradley has over two decades of experience in children's trade and educational publishing, both on staff and as a freelancer. She earned a BA in English from Spelman College and an MA in Spanish Translation from Rutgers University. Ms. Bradley has taught ESL to adults. She is also the author of a middle grade Social Studies book: U.S. Territories and Possessions (Let’s Explore the States! series). Most recently she earned a Digital Archives Specialist certificate from the Society of American Archivists.

  • Instructor
    Peggy Olsen

    Peggy has a B.S. in Psychology, Master of Education in Guidance and Counseling, and Master of Psychology. She has almost 30 years of experience in teaching and counseling for both elementary and college level students.

What is a latchkey kid? Read about latchkey children. Learn about the historical usage of the term. See a list of the characteristics of latchkey kids. Updated: 09/24/2021

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What is a Latchkey Kid?

Experts do not agree on the true definition of a latchkey kid, but the term generally refers to a child who routinely returns home on their own and uses a key to lock or unlock the door of their residence. Once this child is inside the home, they are alone and without adult supervision. Some definitions include not only children with no adult there to see them to and from school, but also those who may have a hybrid situation that includes some supervision. For example, some children may go to an after school program and then return home on their own. Others may have a neighbor who checks on them but these children are mostly unsupervised until their caregivers' return home.

In 2011, census data indicated that there were about 4 million children in the United States who were not supervised for an average of 6 hours per week, meaning that there were children who spent more than 6 hours a week with no adult supervision.

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Latchkey Kid: Characteristics

While there have been studies which concluded that being a latchkey kid was not detrimental to child development, there is still a lot of concern about children being responsible for caring for themselves. Some experts think that latchkey children tend to exhibit signs of depression and low self-esteem. However, there may be factors beyond regular lack of adult supervision contributing to these effects.

Some latchkey children become fearful staying at home alone. (Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

Younger latchkey kids tend to:

  • Feel lonely or afraid
  • Get bored

Older latchkey kids have more opportunities to:

  • Experiment with addictive substances
  • Engage in sexual activity

On a positive note, latchkey kids of any age can:

  • Become more responsible
  • Gain confidence from more responsibility

Age

Children up to age thirteen are considered latchkey children (after thirteen, they are teenagers and presumably will not need as much adult care). A child may still be considered a latchkey kid if they are accompanied by an older sibling who is also under the age of thirteen. In 1988, the New York Times reported that a number of studies at the time found that fifteen percent of children between the ages of six and nine and forty-five percent of children between the ages of nine and eleven in the U.S. did not have an adult at home after school.

Socio-Economic Status

Families with latchkey children vary widely in financial circumstances. An increase in household income does not necessarily translate to an increase in that household's childcare spending. It is also not certain that parents at any socio-economic level will make sure their children are involved in organized after school activities with adult supervision.

There is evidence that, though children from single-parent families or low income households spend time at home on their own, they may spend less time alone compared to children of higher socio-economic status. It is possible that parents of higher socio-economic status are less concerned about the safety of their neighborhoods and may feel comfortable leaving their children at home by themselves for longer periods of time.

Time Alone

In the mid-1990's it was estimated that about 18% of children in elementary school returned home to an empty house once school was over. The After School Education and Safety Act of 1997 (which passed in 1998) helped to reduce the number of children who stayed home alone by providing funds for after school programs.

Many children return home to an empty house after school. (Photo by Yannis H on Unsplash)

Etymology and Historical Usage

It is believed that a 1944 documentary first used the term latchkey kid to describe children who came home to empty houses. The media took note of the practice in the World War II era, when more children had to care for themselves since their parents were either participating in the war effort or working to keep the family financially stable. The typical latchkey kid at the time may have had a father who was fighting in the war and a mother who had to start working to make up for the income the father could not provide because he was in the armed forces.

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Frequently Asked Questions

At what ages can a child be considered a latchkey kid?

A child can be a latchkey kid as early as age six. Once a child is age thirteen or older, they are no longer considered to be a latchkey kid.

Does the latchkey practice exist today?

Although the term "latchkey kids" is not used very often in the twenty-first century, there are certainly children who fit the description.

What is the latchkey generation?

Although the term "latchkey kid" was coined in the 1940s, when people talk about the latchkey generation today, they are usually referring to people in the group also known as Generation X (people born between about 1965 and 1980).

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