Latchkey children aged five spend 45 minutes a day at home alone

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The Independent Online

Schoolchildren as young as five are spending more than 45 minutes a day at home alone because of parents working, according to new research.

Schoolchildren as young as five are spending more than 45 minutes a day at home alone because of parents working, according to new research.

The growing number of "latchkey kids", who let themselves into an empty house, is an inevitable consequence of the inadequacy or high cost of after-school care for children when both parents are working, the researchers concluded.

The study, which was presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for the Research on Adolescence in Michigan, United States yesterday, showed that children of older mothers or mothers who had attended university or college were more likely to be left at home unsupervised.

The findings have implications for British children as three out of four women with young, dependent children are working and flexible, affordable childcare is not readily available.

Research to be published soon by the Economic and Social Research Council estimates that, by 2003, up toone-quarter of primary school children will need to be supervised after school because their parents are working.

The number of after-school clubs is expanding but Dr Fiona Smith of Brunel University, co-author of the British research, warned that they needed to be developed into the "sorts of environments that children want to spend time in".

Dr Smith, who is presenting her findings at a Family Policy Studies Centre seminar next month, said: "We need a vast number of new, qualified playworkers if the current expansion of the service is to succeed," she said.

The American researchers found that only 19 per cent of children attended after-school clubs while 73 per cent went straight home.

Dr Sandra Hofferth, a sociologist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, a co-author of the study, found that one-quarter of American children spent some time after school completely alone, including time spent going from one place to another. One in seven spent time alone at home, and 2.5 per cent spent time elsewhere.

The study is based on time diaries detailing the activities of children aged 5 to 12. It showed that the average amount of time spent at home unsupervised by adults was one hour, varying from 47 minutes for children aged 5 to 7 to one hour and 15 minutes for children aged 11 and 12.

The researchers found that children of higher income parents were less likely to spend time alone than children of the lowest income parents. "The ability to afford after-school programmes may play an important part in parent's considerations," she said.

But parenting patterns, neighbourhood characteristics, and children's personalities are also factors: "More educated mothers may feel comfortable allowing children some autonomy at younger ages," she said.

"Spending a little time alone may not be bad, given the hectic, highly scheduled quality of contemporary family life," said Dr Hofferth.