Support systems for latchkey children

It's a sign of the times: A small but growing number of courses for latchkey children are cropping up around the country. With names like ''Survival'' or ''Basic Aid Training,'' the classes are being given by such groups as the Boy Scouts, Campfire Girls, YMCAs, 4-H clubs, and at least one local mental health agency.

There are even hot lines for children home alone in Texas and Pennsylvania (see accompanying story) so ''they can call if they're bored, if they're bleeding, if they're scared, if they have a problem with their homework,'' says Thomas Long, an education professor at Catholic University, who has studied these children.

Latchkey kids - those who regularly leave from or go home to a place without adults - now number between 3 and 6 million, says Dr. Long, who, with his wife, Lynette, arrived at this estimate after a three-year study of the phenomenon. ''Actually, that's a very conservative estimate of only the 6- to 13-year-olds, '' says the professor, who also turned up roughly 50,000 children under the age of 6 who are left home for most of the day.

''Every child is left alone at some time in their lives,'' says Nancy Pfafflin, mother of a 12-year-old and the author of a 4-H ''Survival Skills'' course for children aged 8 to 13 in the Washington, D.C. area. ''We don't ask if these are latchkey kids,'' she says of the course's students, ''and they don't necessarily tell us.''

Boredom, loneliness, and fear are the problems most common to this group, Dr. Long believes, and Mrs. Pfafflin's course is designed to help children overcome all three. Coping with boredom, she says, is a day-to-day occurrence: ''Most of these children come home and turn on the TV all afternoon,'' she says. Her six-session course teaches skills that ''give the kids another option - like cooking.''

Dr. Long thinks parents should help by programming some activities for their children - an after-school class, perhaps. ''Or arrange to meet them at the library one evening, or work out an exchange with a friend, including elderly friends. If there are elderly folk in your neighborhood,'' he says, ''the child could turn to them for help in decisionmaking, and the parent could do their grocery shopping or mow their lawn on the weekend.''

Arranging these activities would also preclude another major problem of latchkey children: loneliness. ''About 80 percent of the children we interviewed are not allowed to have friends over while the parent isn't there, or visit another friend without adults in the home'' - good rules, he says, that nevertheless isolate the child. ''If he's an only child, he's stuck by himself, '' the professor said. ''If he has siblings, Mama's on the phone all the time acting as referee.''

Dr. Long says being home alone tends to exaggerate the fears among this group , because ''there's nobody to turn off that fear.'' The 4-H course deals with fear by teaching the children the difference between an emergency and something that's simply upsetting.

Some emergencies can be warded off, Mrs. Pfafflin believes, by teaching children to follow ''a few simple house rules.'' She suggests that children:

* Keep the door locked.

* Always answer the telephone or doorbell, saying that the parent is busy and that they will tell them of the call or visit, and hang up or close the door.

* If the child comes home and the door is open or a window is broken, go to a neighbor's house and phone the police, giving the name and address completely and clearly.

''The children enjoy acting out these phone calls,'' says Mrs. Pfafflin, who uses role-playing techniques to teach children how to call the fire department, the police, and, if they smell fumes, the gas company.

But the most important rule - the one she says would keep people from knowing this child was alone - is the rule most often broken. ''We tell them never to show their keys, not to wear them around their neck,'' she said, ''but they've become the new status symbols in school. It shows that the child has been trusted to be on his own.''

Dr. Long confirms this perception, saying his wife first noticed it as a teacher. He suggests the keys be pinned inside the child's clothing, and adds his own list of rules:

* Explain to your children why and when they'll be home alone. ''One little 6 -year-old said she came home one day and her mother simply wasn't there. She says she cried for 21/2 hours until Mom came home and told her she got a job.''

* Don't assume your child can go to the neighbor's. Make sure the neighbors and children know each other, that the neighbors are home during the day, and that they agree with the arrangement.

* Set up a telephone network - a list of emergency numbers to call (police, fire, Mom, Dad, another adult).

* Be punctual. ''If you tell the kid you'll be there at 5:30, and then you stop off to get some milk at the store, those extra 15 minutes can be terrifying ,'' he said. ''This is especially true for children in single-parent families, who may already be feeling abandoned.''

* Give him a pet. ''Kids in the inner city want a big, mean dog to help them feel less afraid, and kids out in the suburbs want a rabbit or a kitten for solace,'' he reported.

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