I think I was about eight or nine years old when I learned the term ‘latchkey kid’. It was a big thing in the early 1980’s for parents to have their kids come home to an empty house. I suspect some serious shaming went on with those parents for that but my mom once told me if she hadn’t gone back to work when she did she would have gone nuts (she was a stay-at-home mom from 1970 to 1977 – I turned three in 1977). Because as my mom put it, there was only so much Dr. Seuss you could read before you went nuts.
My dad had this book I remember called something like ‘Raising Latchkey Kids’ and all I could think was why did you need a book to learn how to raise kids? I honestly thought back then adults had their act together but also knew they didn’t just like now and back then, and before then, too.
We lived in middle-class suburbia so it wasn’t like my brother and I were on the mean streets of New York City or someplace like that. You just had to remember to carry your house key with you to school and not lose it (I forgot mine one day and had to sit outside till my brother got home about half an hour or so after me). Personally, I liked coming home to an empty house because I got first dibs on the refrigerator and the tv remote. Snacks were whatever I could find and the remote always went to MTV first in the hopes of seeing a Duran Duran video.
As a kid, I never went without anything but I also knew my parents struggled, too. In fact, for more than a few years, my mom was the sole breadwinner in the family (that’s a story for another time and place). I didn’t do as much as I wanted to and since I got paid an allowance I made sure I did my chores to earn it. Back then, I spent most of my money on books and magazines.
Looking back, I feel like there was so much that wasn’t talked about. I’ve said recently that we weren’t having the conversations back then like we are now. I need to alter that slightly to say we weren’t having any conversations at all about the seriously-fucked up shit that was going down. I mean, a lot of kids grew up thinking that parents not being around or assuming too much responsibility was normal and alright. Learning how to do stuff is one thing, but for me there were times when I felt like I was just expected to know something and if I didn’t then I got landed on. I know now that’s just someone being a complete dumb-ass in assuming someone knows something even if they say they don’t. But it’s why I have so much trouble asking for help with anything.
Another thing that was considered a compliment for your kids was being told they had ‘good coping skills’. Yeah, we coped with shit by not talking about it or blowing our lights out (and if someone did commit suicide you didn’t really talk about it either).
Recently on Twitter a discussion was had about Gen X kids watching tv shows and movies that weren’t ‘kids stuff’. I will freely admit here I was watching R-rated movies in my single-digit years and no adults were freaking out about that to my face. I thought it was just watching cool grown-up stuff because back then I felt like the goal was to want to grow up and be an adult and do your own thing. I mean, we were already doing our own thing by coming home alone, roaming our neighborhoods with no adult supervision, and amusing ourselves in addition to taking care of ourselves, too. I think this is why those Gen X’ers who were able to work from home welcomed that last year because we’d been training for it a lot longer than most Olympic athletes ever trained for anything.
I think the biggest takeaway I have from my latchkey childhood is having an overactive imagination. I was teased and bullied horribly because I was fat, shy, and ugly as a kid (and still am as an adult). It took me a while to realize that most people don’t have overactive imaginations and create fanfic in their heads so much. Back then, it was just what I did. Now I see it for what it really was: a tool for survival.
Now it wasn’t all shit back then. We had MTV, cable television if you were lucky, good music on the radio, and a bike to ride. And most of all, cooler heads prevailed in the White House and the Kremlin so we didn’t get blown to Kingdom Come in a nuclear war (though we watched enough post-apocalyptic movies and stuff to know what to do if weren’t at Ground Zero and vaporized).