I’ve long been fascinated with the term “latchkey kid,” though something about it sounds offensive in an vaguely antiquated way, like describing an unmarried woman as a spinster or referring to siblings born less than a year apart as “Irish twins.” Perhaps that’s because there’s always been some shame for parents who work and leave their kids at home and unattended. Or maybe it’s because, as I learned while writing this, my guilty instincts were exactly right: Early in its etymology, “Latchkey children” appeared in a 1935 newspaper column condemning working Black mothers for leaving their children unaccompanied during the day.
The phrase, which specifically refers to a kid who wears a house key around their neck for easy entry into their homes, gained popularity in the 1940s, as many fathers were sent to fight in World War II and mothers entered the workforce to support both their families and the war effort. Unaccompanied children roaming the street were considered the cause of an uptick in petty crime and delinquency, a saddening reminder that we’ll always find ways to blame poor mothers for the perceived crumbling of society.
But like many others, I grew up with divorced parents who both worked. I myself was a latchkey kid, which maybe explains my weird affection for such a coded phrase. There was nothing harmful or dangerous about the fact that I was home by myself, it just meant that I spent a lot of time alone and yes, I wore a key around my neck so that I wouldn’t lose it while I was at school or playing outside. My parents, and most working parents, were being responsible — they were working to provide for me while trusting me to fend for myself for a few hours, which I did through questionable, albeit entirely safe ways.
When you spend a lot of time alone in your house, you have endless opportunities to get creative. Alone, I would dress in costumes and act out expansive scenes in my upstairs hallway. I’d walk my dog and pretend he was a horse. I also, admittedly, watched a whole lot of television. But one way that my creativity would almost always take form was through snacks, a series of inadvisable and unappetizing meals created based on what was in the refrigerator and cupboards. Ignoring a full loaf of bread, I’d take slices of bologna, roll them, fill the middle with yellow mustard, then prong them with toothpicks, a fifth grader’s interpretation of canape. I once ate an entire bushel of parsley that I dunked in natural peanut butter, a combination I insisted was delicious and world-changing, though I would never return to it because… well… it was actually really gross. Makeshift crepes were created from Nutella and flour tortillas warmed in the microwave. I’d eat turkey hot dogs cold and bunless in front of the open fridge. It was often lonely to eat this way, but the time was also entirely mine. It was thrilling.
This type of hodgepodge diet is a point of pride among other so-called latchkey kids. Google “latchkey kid snack” and you’ll find endless results of now-adults touting their own weird recipes born from that signature combination of boredom and lack of supervision which excites a child’s brain. A friend of mine, who once had a blog devoted to the latchkey kid snack, says he “loved placing store-brand saltines in a circular arrangement on a plate and placing a small cup of cold marinara in the middle... It felt like what an adult might present at a cocktail party.”
In all honesty, it wasn’t until my 30s that I developed a more adult way of feeding myself and even now, I occasionally find myself combing a near-empty pantry, searching for something, anything, I can force together and eat to further avoid the annoying-but-simple task of walking to the grocery store to restock. Part of me even misses that feeling of playing adult while waiting for my parents to get home.
Of course, the sense of loneliness surrounding these snacks are bound to make a parent feel guilty, much like phrase “latchkey kid” does already. If I didn’t include the following caveat, I can almost guarantee the imminent arrival of calls and texts from home insisting that, throughout my childhood, there were stocked cupboards and prepared snacks that I could have eaten instead, so allow me to get ahead of that: There were definitely more dignified snacks at home. But all the yogurt-covered granola bars in the world can’t hold a candle to the quiet thrill of discovering which salad dressing can also double as pasta sauce on cold spaghetti. The answer, by the way, was Newman’s Italian.
Goldsuit is a painter and graphic designer based in Seattle.