From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
For more than three million American children between the ages of 6 and 13, the experience of coming home from school to Mom and apple pie is only a dream. These children end—and often even begin—their school day in houses with no adult supervision. Armed with only the key to the front door, such so-called "latchkey" kids (plus an estimated 50,000 preschoolers) fend for themselves while their parents are occupied in the workplace.

Tom Long, 43, associate professor of counselor education at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and his wife, Lynette, 34, an assistant professor of education at Loyola College in Baltimore, know the problem well. They juggle their schedules so that one of them is home in Bethesda, Md. more than half the time with their children, Seth, 6, and Sarah, 3. They provide room and board to a college student in exchange for watching the kids the rest of the time. Knowing that such arrangements are beyond the reach of many parents, the Longs have studied the phenomenon by interviewing not only parents, but also 300 latchkey children themselves in Washington and its suburbs. They shared their findings with Ken Huff of PEOPLE.

What accounts for the large number of latchkey kids?

Lynette: The high divorce rate has created a lot of single working parents. Right now 22 percent of all American children under 18 live with only one parent. Moreover, many married women are returning to the work force. Because of the demise of the extended family, Grandmother is less likely to watch the kids. The bulk of public funding for child care is spent for preschool children. Many people can't afford private day-care services, and even if they can, there is very little available for school-age children.

Why not?

Lynette: The model is based on the 1950s, when most women didn't work outside the home and when Mom could be counted on to be there.

Do most latchkey kids feel isolated?

Tom: Yes. About 50 percent of the parents tell their kids, "You can't go outside until I get home." About 80 percent of the parents say the kids can't have anyone over to visit.

Lynette: When parents are late, children often imagine the worst. Parents don't realize that stopping at the grocery store and being only five minutes late can be terrifying to the child. One in three children left alone reported high fear, including recurring nightmares, fear of noises, fear of the dark, increased concern for personal safety, fear of fires and intruders.

How do these kids cope?

Lynette: The most common method is hiding—in a shower, under or in a bed, in a closet or bathroom. The second is the TV, often played at loud volume.

Aren't most children susceptible to similar fears?

Tom: We talked to 60 children who do have adult supervision after school. Not one was in the high-fear category.

Are conditions better when kids are home with siblings?

Tom: Twenty percent still report a high level of fear, and there are added problems. Siblings fight. Sometimes the child in charge mimics the parent. "My mother hits him when he misbehaves, so I hit him." We're not sure, but we think there is a heightened incidence of sibling abuse and sibling sexual abuse among these children.

What are the other perils faced by latchkey children?

Tom: Break-ins, weather emergencies, injuries from falls. Crazy phone calls can be very disturbing to kids. An 8-year-old riding a bike might get hit by an automobile. The 12-year-old taking care of him has to deal with the police.

What becomes of these children?

Tom: Some former latchkey kids who are now adults seem to benefit. One told us, "I became very independent and learned to make quick decisions." But we find an equal number of former latchkey kids who say their social interaction was interfered with.

Lynette: A 38-year-old woman told us, "I'm afraid to be at home alone. I dread my husband's traveling. I barricade the doors with furniture."

Are latchkey kids usually poor?

Tom: At an inner-city school, we found about one in three children was a latchkey kid. In a suburban area where family incomes average about $45,000, one in nine was a latchkey kid.

Lynette: In fifth and sixth grades percentages are much higher. In one sixth-grade class we found that 24 out of 28 were latchkey kids.

How do latchkey parents feel?

Lynette: Some prefer to have their kids at home so they can put dinner in the oven, answer the phone or clean house. The child can be an asset, and it saves day-care expenses. Other parents feel extremely guilty and are reluctant to communicate with people in the same boat who might share child-sitting costs.

Tom: People in industry talk about the 3 o'clock syndrome—a visible slump in productivity among parents whose children are home alone. The parents wait for the call that comes when the child gets home.

Do parents realize how scared their kids may be?

Lynette: Not many. When we ask children, "Do you tell your parents?" they say, "No, because my mother has enough to worry about."

Are there any solutions?

Tom: Yes, but the responsibility rests on communities as well as parents. Some companies are establishing daycare centers. In Houston, parents can pay $30 per year for a hot line which their children can call for advice, information and assistance. In Virginia, Arlington County helps subsidize a program in the elementary schools where children can stay late, using the gym, taking music lessons, doing arts and crafts, or studying.

Lynette: In some cases children are taught survival skills, such as telephone procedures, dealing with strangers at the door, cooking, outdoor safety, and what to do during a weather emergency.

Can the latchkey experience ever be good?

Tom: We prefer that kids not be left alone, but the potential ill effects depend on age, maturity and neighborhood. A 13-year-old might profit from time spent alone or caring for a sibling if the experience is purposefully planned. But a 6-year-old isn't ready to. If you give children tasks that are equal to their abilities, they should thrive. If you give them tasks beyond their development, they're going to fail. Pre-school kids should never be left alone. That's neglect.

What kinds of families cope best?

Tom: The closer the relationship between the parent and child, the better able the child is to manage. What the parent knows about the child and how much time the parent spends with the child at home are critical.