Children in elementary school may be able to fend for themselves for a couple of hours after school, but it's hard for them to cope alone for an entire day while parents work. This can be a problem especially during the summer when more parents seem to be leaving young children unsupervised.
One of the nation's leading child development experts urges parents to create structured schedules for their adolescents, too, over summer. Child psychologist Dr. Thomas Long, an associate professor of education who teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has studied for decades how well children cope taking care of themselves. His research resulted in the term "latchkey" children.
"Generally, I don't think any child 10 and younger should be left unattended on a regular basis," Long said. "During the summer, you can't leave these young kids home alone all day long. Finding placements for them is a must."
He called an 8- or 10-year-old left home alone "an accident waiting to happen." And he's not worried about just physical harm. "The kids' emotional life is being stifled. They need interaction with other children. If there's a thunderstorm, they're going to be frightened. They are forced to cope with things before they're developmentally ready."
He attributes parents leaving young children unattended to the embrace of work over children. When that attitude took hold, parents started seeing the world through their own eyes, "their own personal need system. It's easier to convince yourself viewing things that way that your child is going to be okay," he said.
Parents tell their children to stay home, but boys more typically won't, Long said. "Girls tend to keep the stay-at-home rule. But what often happens, if the parents are on a regular schedule and no one is checking up on them, is that the house is pretty much theirs until somebody comes home at 6."