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Review: Latchkey Children

M.L. Padilla & G.L. Landreth. (1989, July/August). “Latchkey children: A review of the literature.”¬†Child Welfare, 68(4), 445-454.


Latchkey children, those little waifs with the key to the front door tied around their necks, first became visible during WW II as fathers were gone and mothers began entering the workforce. In 1943, “the latchkey child” was the central theme of the annual meeting of the American Association of School Administrators. Latchkey children were expected to be the problem adolescents of the 1950s and the maladjusted parents of the 1960s.

Many parents perceive that the situation is socially undesirable, possibly even illegal. Many fear for the child’s safety. Contributing factors in the increased number of latchkey children include the surge of working moms, the increase in single parent homes, the number of smaller families with fewer care-giving adults, and the lack of involved neighbors. Other circumstances contribute to this rise in number. School schedules do not overlap with parent work schedules, a lack of after school programs limits places for kids to go after school, day cares often do not accept older kids, many parents lack transportation, programs are too expensive, and many children from the 4th grade and older insist that they can care for themselves.

Some possible consequences of child self-care are feelings of rejection on the part of the child, rushing children into responsibility too early, delinquent behavior, accidents, sexual victimization, and the possibility of encouraging the experimentation with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Other possible negative consequences include the possibility of curtailing socialization, developing fear responses, and feelings of isolation. The concerns parents have include watching too much TV, a negative effect on school performance, injury to the child, safety of the neighborhood, and meeting the emotional needs of the kids. The concerns of kids in grades 4-6 include getting hurt, kidnapped, getting in with the wrong friends, getting into fights, and being abused. Kids in grades 7 and 8 worry about being bored, wasting time, not finishing their homework, and doing chores. Low-income, minority, urban, elementary kids fear for their safety and do not like being alone. They are afraid of robbery or harm done by an intruder. The farther removed from the adult environment the kids are, the more likely they are to be susceptible to peer pressure.

There are positive aspects of child self-care. Latchkey kids seem to do better than day-care kids in perceived self-confidence and peer acceptance. Eighty percent of 4-8th graders like it, while many feel ambivalent. Kids left totally alone seem to be given better instructions than those left with siblings. Latchkey kids seem better equipped to handle emergencies than their adult care counterparts. A good mother/child relationship is helpful especially if the mother has a positive attitude toward her job. Authoritative parenting seems to cut down on peer influence for antisocial behavior. Pets help to alleviate fears. The results of research are mixed. Some note negative effects on academic achievement and adjustment quotients, while others note no ill effects. Some studies suggest significant differences in susceptibility to peer pressure in certain groups and raise the possibility that variations within the latchkey population are important to study.

Intervention programs around the country include Campfire, YMCA, YWCA, Scouts, Red Cross, National Crime Prevention Council, and the PTA. Phone lines exist in many communities.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What are some ways that youth workers can alleviate fears expressed by latchkey children?
  2. How a youth leader help the situations causing concern among parents?
  3. Are the neighborhoods of the kids with which you work safe? If no, what can be done?
  4. Do you agree with the possible positive effects of child self-care?
  5. What variations within the child self-care population are important to study?
  6. Latchkey kids of the 1960s are now parents. Do you see any ill effects in their parenting skills?


  1. There seem to be many theories concerning child self-care, but the data conflict.
  2. Many people, youth workers included, have preconceived notions about the effect of self-care on kids.
  3. More study is needed; individual kids probably respond individually to the situation.
  4. As people concerned about kids and families, be sensitive to each family’s situation and to the response of each child to their own situation.
  5. Actively help to seek solutions to the problems raised.

Delinda Higgins
© 2018 CYS

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