In the United States the cost of living has been steadily rising for the past few decades. Food prices, clothing costs, housing expenses, and tuition fees are constantly getting higher and higher. Partly because of financial need, and partly because of career choices for personal fulfillment, mothers have been leaving the traditional role of full-time homemaker. Increasingly they have been taking salaried jobs outside the home.
Making such a significant role change affects the entire family, especially the children. Some consequences are obvious. For example, dinnertime is at a later hour. The emotional impact, on the other hand, can be more subtle. Mothers leave home in the morning, feeling guilty because they will not be home when their children return from school. They suppress their guilt since they believe that their work will benefit everyone in the long run. The income will enable the family to save for college tuition, take an extended vacation, buy a new car, and so on.
The emotional impact on the children can be significant. It is quite common for children to feel hurt and resentful. After all, they are alone several hours, and they feel that their mothers should “be there” for them. They might need assistance with their homework or want to share the day’s activities. All too often, however, the mothers arrive home exhausted and face the immediate task of preparing dinner. Their priority is making the evening meal for the family, not engaging in relaxed conversation.
Latchkey children range in age from six to thirteen. On a daily basis they return from school and unlock the door to their home with the key hanging around their necks. They are now on their own, alone, in quiet, empty rooms. For some youngsters, it is a productive period of private time, while for others it is a frightening, lonely void. For reasons of safety, many parents forbid their children to go out to play or to have visitors at home. The youngsters, therefore, feel isolated.
Latchkey children who were interviewed reported diverse reactions. Some latchkey children said that being on their own for a few hours each day fostered, or stimulated, a sense of independence and responsibility. They felt loved and trusted, and this feeling encouraged them to be self-confident. Latchkey girls, by observing how their mothers coped with the demands of a family
and a job, learned the role model of a working mother. Some children stated that they used their unsupervised free time to perfect their athletic skills, such as playing basketball. Others read books or practiced a musical instrument. These children looked upon their free time after school as an opportunity for personal development. It led to positive, productive, and valuable experiences.
Conversely, many latchkey children expressed much bitterness, resentment, and anger for being made to live in this fashion. Many claimed that too much responsibility was placed on them at an early age; it was an overwhelming burden. They were little people who really wanted to be protected, encouraged, and cared for through attention from their mothers. Coming home to an empty house was disappointing, lonely, and often frightening. They felt abandoned by their mothers. After all, it seemed to them that most other children had “normal” families whose mothers were “around,” whereas their own mothers were never home. Many children turned on the television for the whole afternoon day after day, in order to diminish feelings of isolation; furthermore, the voices were comforting. Frequently, they would doze off.
Because of either economic necessity or strong determination for personal fulfillment, or both, the phenomenon of latchkey children is widespread in our society. Whatever the reason, it is a compelling situation with which families must cope. The question to ask is not whether or not mothers should work full-time. Given the reality of the situation, the question to ask is: how can an optimum plan be worked out to deal effectively with the situation.
It is advisable for all members of the family to express their feelings and concerns about the inevitable change candidly. These remarks should be discussed fully. Many factors must be taken into consideration: the children’s personality and maturity, the amount of time the children will be alone, the safety of the neighborhood, accessibility of help in case of an emergency. Of supreme importance is the quality of the relationship between parents and children. It is most important that the children be secure in the knowledge that they are loved. Feeling loved provides invaluable emotional strength to cope successfully with almost any difficulty that arises in life.