In the '80s, it was commonplace for parents to leave kids home alone after school
Authors say the "fear factor" from 24/7 coverage of child abductions led to a decline in latchkey kids
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Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv. Explore “The Eighties” Thursdays at 9 p.m. starting March 31 only on CNN.
When I was 12, my mom started working full-time. There wasn’t the money to hire a sitter for those after-school hours, nor even the thought of it. No one in my neighborhood, a small working-class community in Brooklyn, did that. So I would walk home from school, and then my older sister and I would take care of our younger sister, who is six years younger than I am, when she got home from school, until Mom came home by dinnertime.
Our afternoons consisted of making snacks, doing homework and the occasional chore for my mother such as folding laundry – and television. Plenty of TV.
We didn’t think of ourselves as “latchkey kids,” but that’s what we were: Mom gave us keys and left us to take care of ourselves until her workday ended. My mother told me that even when one of us was sick, including my sister who was in elementary school at the time, she would often go to work and leave us home alone.
My sisters and I turned out more than fine (there may have been the occasional summer party during our teenage years, but Mom doesn’t need to know that!) – and yet, the thought of letting my 8- and 9-year-old gals do the same thing now, or in the not too distant future, more than freaks me out.
The question is, why? What has changed from the way we grew up in the late ’70s and the ‘80s? Nowadays, leaving your children on their own might not just be frowned upon, it could get you arrested. Remember the Maryland family accused by authorities of child neglect for letting their kids, ages 6 and 10, walk home from a playground about a mile from their house? And some states have laws against leaving young children home alone.
There is also something more than ironic about the fact that latchkey kids like myself are raising our own children in a time when helicopter parenting or overparenting is, sadly, all too common. How could individuals who had so much freedom as kids end up overscheduling their own children and constantly hovering over them?
In my conversations with a range of people, including a psychiatrist, an author and several latchkey kids who are now parents themselves, the consensus was that a combination of factors are to blame: the social pressures of parenting today; a desire, conscious or unconscious, by latchkey parents to raise kids differently; and fear stemming from the 24/7 coverage of tragic events involving children.
The ‘fear factor’
“Thirty years ago, if something happened to a kid in Oregon, it would be horrible, but it wouldn’t be the topic of everything everywhere for a week,” said Dr. George Glass, co-author of “The Overparenting Epidemic: Why Helicopter Parenting Is Bad for Your Kids … and Dangerous for You, Too!”
The nonstop coverage of stories involving the kidnapping and murder of children has made parents “cautious about everything,” said Glass, even as gun-related homicides and crime have dropped since peaking in the ’80s. “You don’t let them ride their bikes somewhere else. You don’t let them go to the bathroom (in a public place) without somebody checking on them. It’s a little nutty, but it’s the fear factor,” said Glass, who is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical School and School of Public Health, the Baylor College of Medicine and the Cornell Weill School of Medicine.
Award-winning journalist and author David Kushner has thought a great deal about what led to the parenting fears of today while researching and reporting his most recent book, “Alligator Candy,” which is about the murder of his 11-year-old brother Jon in 1973. Jon left the family home in Tampa, Florida, on his bike and headed through the woods to a nearby candy store, in part to pick up some Snappy Gator Gum for David, Kushner writes in his book. Jon never returned. His body was found a week later.
Ironically, Kushner’s parents, who gave their three kids tremendous freedom before Jon’s death, continued that approach even after the murder of their son.
“My mother always said to me, ‘We don’t want to cripple you,’” said Kushner, who is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and a professor of journalism at Princeton University. “With my parents, it wasn’t like a conscious decision on their part but it was more of an imperative where they just said look, ‘We want you to enjoy life. This has made us even more in touch with how precious life is and you need to go experience it.’”
It was a time when all kids were out and about until the sun went down and sometimes after, he said. It was before “Nancy Grace” and the Internet, he added.
Kushner’s own theory is that things started to change after what he called a “perfect storm for fostering this fear.” First, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared in 1979 while walking to school in New York City’s Soho district. “I think because it was such a mystery and because it was so captivating that it really penetrated the world of the media, which was in New York,” said Kushner. “It became a drama and not to be crass, but it sold newspapers.”
Etan’s disappearance preceded the disappearance and death in 1981 of Adam Walsh, the son of fugitive hunter John Walsh, who currently hosts “The Hunt” on CNN. Around the same time, from 1979 to 1981, the killings of more than two dozen African-American children and young men in Atlanta, in what become known as the Atlanta Child Murders, horrified the country.
“There was this kind of one, two, three hit,” said Kushner, a father of two, noting that it was also around the same time cable news was born. (CNN launched in 1980.) “Brainwash might be too strong a word, but I do think that this is what happened. And I think that we as kids were in high school around this time or junior high and it seems like that’s when the shift started taking place.”
Writer and critic Brian Gresko, the father of a first-grader, said it takes a much more activist approach not to be influenced by other parents, who tend to focus on much more anxious topics involving their kids including their safety and security.
“You have to put the shield up to kind of keep those voices out because there is such a climate of fear around,” said Gresko, editor of “When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk about the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood.”
Gresko, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, says he was a latchkey kid beginning in the fifth grade, along with his younger brother, who was in the first grade at the time. He says there weren’t any major safety issues during his latchkey years.
But he found himself really concerned when his wife was planning to leave their son, who is just 6½, home alone recently while she went down the street to the store. “I kind of reacted with, ‘No way. You cannot leave him on his own. What if the UPS guy comes, what if the mail person comes, what if there’s just one of those people knocking on the door … asking for money?’” he said.
His wife told him he was overreacting, and he told her she was being too nonchalant, said Gresko. His wife eventually did leave her son home but was so freaked out by the conversation that she ran to the store, cut into line saying it was an emergency and raced back home, only to find their son more than fine, playing on the iPad and actually somewhat disappointed that his mom wasn’t gone longer so he could enjoy being a “big boy” for a bit longer, he said.
“I think it is hard, even with my background, to not let those voices of being afraid, of being cautious and concerned, the helicopter parenting” have an effect, said Gresko. “It’s kind of like what people talk about with politics, when you have really extreme voices and everyone ends up getting affected by it. And it’s like in this case, I think I was affected by these helicoptering fears even though I don’t identify as a helicopter parent.”
Latchkey kids choosing to parent a different way
Today’s climate, in which parents talk at length about everything they are doing with their kids, pushes parents “into feeling like if you’re not doing everything everybody else is doing, you’re a bad parent,” said Glass, the co-author of “The Overparenting Epidemic” and a father of five.
“When you are a latchkey kid, your parents are busy working or doing something else and they don’t have time for all that kind of stuff, sitting in the carpool line for half an hour talking about who did what,” he added.
There is also the sense that parents of latchkey kids seemed to have more of a life, or that their lives were not completely centered around their kids – unlike many parents of today, especially those who devoted years to their careers before turning their attention to children, he said.
For parents who grew up as latchkey kids, there is also the desire to give their own children what they didn’t have growing up, Glass added.
That is a primary motivation for Cecily Kellogg, the mom of a 9-year-old daughter and founder of a company specializing in content marketing and social media management.
Kellogg, 47, says as a child, she had the “stereotypical chain with a key hanging around” her neck. She started taking public transit across town by herself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when she was 7, while her mom, a single parent, was working or going to school to get her degree.
She said she had some “pretty bad experiences,” including the time a guy sat down next to her on the bus and started masturbating. (He was eventually kicked off the bus and Kellogg, from then on, sat in the front of the bus to and from school.)
But she says it’s less those experiences that make her feel horrified at the thought of her daughter going across town by bus by herself. It is more about giving her daughter a different kind of childhood.
“I think part of it is just, I remember just feeling so damn alone. And I think that more than the actual scary incidents that happened … I want her to feel safe, and I want her to feel comfortable. And when she wants to start (taking public transit by herself), she will,” said Kellogg, of Philadelphia, who wrote a personal blog for a decade and now writes for places such as Medium and Mom.me.
Rhonda Woods, a real estate agent in Connecticut and mother of three, 14-year-old twins and a 21-year-old, is another former latchkey kid taking a different approach with her own children, in part because of how she was raised.
Woods says that she and her sister, who is 2½ years older, were for the most part on their own after school until her mom got home from work around 5:00 p.m., and her dad sometime after that.
“There were only a few times when we had to call Mom to settle a dispute,” such as, “Mom, she’s chasing me with a knife,” said Woods, with a laugh, adding that the example was not a joke and really happened. (Her mom told her to put her sister on the phone and told her to stop chasing her sister with a knife!)
Woods said she knew that when she had kids she didn’t want them to come home to an empty house. So she and her husband, who is a pilot and frequently travels, have lined up their schedules so that one of them is almost always there when the kids get home from school.
“I think because sometimes you miss the connection,” she said. “When you get home, it’s nice to have somebody to come home to, to say, ‘Hey, how was your day?’ and ‘Tell me about things that happened today.’ … It’s just a transition way to connect and let your kid decompress.”
That said, Woods and other former latchkey children say they are mindful about how they learned about responsibility and independence, spending so many hours on their own, and try to find ways to let their own children develop those same skills.
Woods doesn’t check her children’s homework other than to ask if they’ve completed it, and Kellogg lets her daughter, Tori, who attends a school where children are allowed to leave campus regularly, walk with friends to a playground.
“I guess part of why I’m willing to let Tori do that and go off campus is I do want her to learn a little bit about risk, and I want her to learn a little bit about taking care of herself. And I want her to be able to trust herself,” said Kellogg.
Added Woods, the mom of three, “I think being a latchkey kid made me realize how very important it is for them to be independent and do things themselves, because it makes a stronger person.”
A ‘different time’
Another challenge in giving today’s children more freedom at younger ages, many parents say, is that today’s children are growing up a time when other parents may be less likely to get involved if they see something amiss with another child.
Glass, the psychiatrist and author, tells the story of how his parents ultimately broke down and let him get a mohawk haircut when he was in the sixth grade before he went away to summer camp. As he walked home from the barber shop, which was a mile away from his home in New Jersey, three different people called his mother asking if she knew what had happened to her son, he said.
“Now … nobody even pays attention, or they see something bad happening and they don’t want to get involved, because if you made the wrong call, you’ll end up on the news for something bad,” said Glass.
Gresko, who worried when his wife left their son alone while she ran to a nearby store, said fears about what other people might think played a role in his concerns, too.
“It’s not necessarily I’m scared the UPS guy is going to be like, ‘Hey, let me in,’ as much as the UPS guy might be like, ‘Whoa, there’s this little kid, who’s 6 years old, by himself here. That doesn’t seem right.’”
Something I heard over and over during my conversations was that it was a “different time” when we grew up, a “different era” being a kid in the late ’70s and throughout the ‘80s.
It was. And yet after plenty of research which shows that overparenting our children doesn’t help but hurts them, it’s hard to understand why more of us don’t try to move past the “fear factor” and just let our kids do the things we did growing up.
I thought of this during the weekend when my girls were going stir crazy in our apartment and just wanted to be outside riding their bikes. My husband had a work call and I had to get ready for a painter the following day, plus it was almost time for dinner, so neither of us could take them to the park.
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We didn’t even let our almost-10-year-old daughter take the bike pump to the basement of our building by herself – something I could tell she really wanted to do on her own.
I made a mental note to myself: Maybe I’m not ready for them to go to the park by themselves – but they’re getting ready to do more on their own, and I just need to get out of the way.
Were you a latchkey kid growing up in the ’80s? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.