I liked it, being a latchkey child. Of course, no one called it that back then. Pop psychologists had yet to coin a term for what was, in our '50s neighborhood, a unique situation that caused much clucking and head-shaking among the local mothers.
I was the kid whose mother worked. I was the little girl--at first grade and on up--who came home to an empty house.
Today, children's faces peer sadly from the covers of national magazines, and newspaper columnists speak of "the tragedy" of the latchkey child.
Loneliness? Depression? Danger? Here's how it looked to one latchkey kid who remembers:
First, of course, there was school. School all day. Bossy teachers. Noise. Lines. Hubbub. Pushing. Unending hassles. The searing agonies of second grade: waiting, my finger growing numb on the page, for slow, pudgy Fred to finish reading out loud, for him to stop calling "bird," "brid"; watching, desolate, as my best friend Karen passed notes to Joanne and not to me. I liked school, but enough was enough.
When I came home, when I opened my door, I was in my kingdom. The house was cool, and quiet, and all mine. For the first time in the entire day, I was free.
But what did I do? What would you do? First, I got comfortable. I flung off my hot shoes, tossed my coat and books where I wanted. I could pick them up later. Then, wandering from room to room, reveling in the pleasure of having the whole house to myself, I might survey myself in the mirror, rehearsing speeches or conversations for some future date, gesturing, arching an eyebrow, all inhibitions lost in the delicious freedom of being alone.
Then I would eat. Not warm cookies, perhaps, but items I considered more interesting: strands of uncooked spaghetti, cans of oily sardines. I could dip watermelon in ketchup, taste oregano or baking powder. The refrigerator and the spices beckoned me to some unforgettable experimentation.
One of the greatest pleasures of the afternoon was talking to my dog. Ah, poor child, I can hear the lament, with no one to talk to but her dog. But consider: Does your dog bombard you with questions the minute you walk in the door? When was the last time your dog told you to pull up your socks? Does your dog ask if you've written your thank-you notes yet, or when you're going to clean up your room?
Does your dog tell you Karen shouldn't have been passing notes in the first place and that if you can't say something nice about Fred you shouldn't say anything at all?
Blackie was the perfect friend and therapist; he hung on my every word, agreed wholeheartedly with my every prejudice and feeling. People surprised to learn that petting an animal lowers your blood pressure obviously never have poured out their hearts to a dog.
Many afternoons I would become engrossed in some project culled from the pages of Childcraft or Boys' Life. Drawing, painting, soap carving, making papier-ma che', I did them all. One ambitious project sticks in my mind, an aircraft carrier made from a board, with nails projecting every two inches and string tied around to resemble a railing. Also engraved in my memory is my mother's sick expression at the sight of her dining-room table leaf, 50 nails hammered around the edges, with one nail in the center, a creative addition, sporting a flag made from a dish towel.
Usually, after being home a while and gathering psychic strength, I would go off to visit someone in the neighborhood. I had a wide choice, since having children was the thing to do then. These visits inevitably left me stricken with pity for my poor friends, who couldn't have a thought without their mothers being on top of them, telling them what to do, making inane suggestions, never giving them a minute's peace. I used to wonder how they could stand it.
As I look back now, a parent myself, I can understand all those mothers' misgivings. But no, it never occurred to me to start a fire, turn on the gas, stick my finger into an outlet, drink Drano, or do any of the other things adults have planned for children left alone. I had been warned against all these, of course, and I, like today's children of normal intelligence, knew the difference between tasting nutmeg and sampling Clorox. Kids are smarter than they look.
I loved being a latchkey child. I loved the feeling of independence, of being trusted. I learned some important lessons. I learned to manage my own time. I learned to develop my own inner resources. I learned to enjoy reading. But most important, I learned to be alone, to be comfortable with my thoughts and with myself.
Didn't I get into trouble? Didn't I feel depressed and lonely? Sorry, social scientists, I didn't. Didn't my house become a make-out haven, a drug den? Nope.
But times are different, people say.
Of course they are. First, I was not afraid, unlike many children today who come home to crime-ridden neighborhoods and sit, terrified, behind chains and bolts. This is disturbing. A dog at home, even a small one, could be a great help to a child in this situation.
Second, we didn't have a television. My mother refused to buy one. I was incensed, but I never remember being bored.
Was there no dark side to this? Didn't I miss having an adult at home? I have no basis for comparison, of course. Maybe, deep down in my psyche, some festering trauma lurks. But I don't think so.
I believe that for every latchkey child who brings in unsavory friends, smokes dope, drinks his parents' liquor, has sex orgies and sits catatonic in front of a TV, there are thousands more who look forward, as I did, to walking in the door, grabbing a sandwich or a piece of spaghetti, discussing their day with their dog or cat, and savoring the rich pleasures of learning to explore, develop and like themselves.
"Thinking," said Emerson, "is the real business of life." Parents, don't let the sociologists bamboozle you. Adults need time alone. Kids do, too.