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Nowhere to Go but Home Alone

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, September 27, 2009

At 3:30 the other afternoon, my 11-year-old son called me at work to say he'd just gotten back from school. He was home alone. And would be for nearly three hours.

"No TV," I said.

"I know."

"No killing things on the computer."

"I know," he said, sounding bored.

I told him where to find the bagel he hadn't finished for breakfast, told him to do his homework, reminded him to get to his drum lesson a few blocks from our house at 4:30 and told him I loved him.

"Love you, too." He hung up.

I felt just awful.

With the start of sixth grade this year, my son, Liam, officially became a latchkey child.

School lets out at 3:15. My husband and I both work and often don't get home until well after 6. When Liam was in elementary school, there were at least four different formal after-school programs that filled the gap between the end of his school day and the end of our workday. (His 8-year-old sister is in one a couple of blocks from her school.) But once he hit middle school, I panicked. The little that was available for his age group wasn't right for him.

The YMCA in Alexandria, where we live, accepts kids ages 5 to 12, but the program is geared toward younger children and has only two over the age of 9 enrolled. Liam refused to go. "Too babyish." And he didn't sound ready for the rec center's drop-in tween program, which, its brochure said, offers discussion groups on "pregnancy and prevention, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc."

I asked other working parents of middle-schoolers in my neighborhood what they do. I got back a range of messages, some sounding as guilty and harried as I felt, about hoping to cobble together a mix of after-school clubs, sports or band practice, afternoons at the library or with a friend with an at-home parent, music lessons, tutors or babysitters.

Though many parents had made it through their children's infancy and elementary school years working full time, some were exploring teleworking or cutting back their work hours. Still, many of the children would be spending some part of the afternoon home alone. "There's just nothing for them," lamented one mother, worried about her 11-year-old diabetic child by herself in an empty house.

Census data from 2005 show that about 6 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 spend part of their day home alone (14 million when you count high-schoolers). Six percent of all children ages 5 to 11 were classified as caring for themselves after school. Among children 12 to 14, it was around 33 percent. The figure is higher for older teens. Demographers say the latchkey phenomenon is probably even bigger. "I'm sure it's underreported," said Lynda Laughlin, who tracks this data at the U.S. Census Bureau, "because parents don't want to be seen as negligent."

Ouch.

I went online. I found a checklist of questions to ask your children before allowing them to stay home alone. Can they "stay alone without being too afraid or lonely?" I found hysterical articles on the "epidemic" of latchkey children followed by offers of services. For $179.40 a year, one company would call my latchkey child at various times and greet him with a recorded message, instructing him to press 1 to acknowledge the call. They'd ring me up with a recorded alert if he didn't.

I found smug comments lamenting parents' love of two incomes over the well-being of their children. (Anybody bother to digest the statistic that nearly 80 percent of women with school-age children work outside the home? That's up from 55 percent in 1975. And my guess is they all love their children very much.)

I wondered if it was even legal to leave Liam home alone. I found a brochure online from the National Child Care Information and Technical Assistance Center showing that only two states have laws or regulations on when children can be left home alone. In Maryland it's at age 8. In Illinois, 14. Other states appear to operate much like the Pirate Code -- they merely have "guidelines."

I also found research showing that middle- and higher-income families have more latchkey children than lower-income families do. And that the ability to pay for after-school care has nothing to do with it. The fact is that there just isn't a lot out there for tweens after 3 p.m.

When I realized I wasn't the only working parent making panicked phone calls, sending desperate e-mails and losing sleep trying to figure out what to do with an 11-year-old after school, I got angry. It hit me: The culture and structure of work and school have yet to catch up with the realities of modern American life.

Lynne Casper, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California who studies the phenomenon of latchkey kids, remembers attending a congressional briefing on workplace issues.

"We were talking about the need for society to start addressing workplace flexibility and work and family balance, and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said: 'We've been talking about this for 20 years. Why doesn't it ever get any better?' " Casper recalled. "Most of the structure of our workplace in this country has been in place since the Fair Labor Standards Act of the 1930s. But we've shifted from single-earner to dual-earner families. We've shifted from a manufacturing to a 24/7 service economy. As we've shifted, the things that were set up no longer work."

To prove that point, Casper and other researchers are undertaking a massive, NIH-funded study of work and life conflict, not just for working families but for all workers, and how it affects a company's bottom line. A preliminary study has shown that with more flexible schedules and less stress about work/life issues -- such as leaving tweens home alone -- there's less sickness, less absenteeism and less "presenteeism," Casper said, which she defines as "being present at work, but not being productive because your mind is somewhere else." (A separate study has found that productivity drops off in the afternoons at exactly the time that school lets out, as latchkey kids begin to call their parents.)

On the other side of the latchkey equation, Ellie Mitchell wants to shift the culture and structure of the school day. Mitchell, director of the Maryland Out of School Time Network, argues, as does U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, that the school day is outmoded. "After-school is always seen as something extra," she said. "But I don't know why 9 to 3 is so much more important than 3 to 6. It's all just the time that kids are not with their families."

She points to research on students from low-income families who are, on average, far behind their middle-class peers in school. Those who attend charter schools that stay open until the workday ends at 5 or 6 or who are in high-quality after-school programs -- learning art or music, playing sports, or getting tutoring and homework help -- show impressive academic gains. Those left on their own after school, in contrast, have more academic and social troubles.

But Mitchell argues -- and Liam would agree -- that the key is that the offerings are high quality, age appropriate and "cool." Research has shown that "scared straight" programs, such as the one at my rec center, don't work for anyone, she said. And by the end of the fifth grade, Liam was already bored and miserable at his elementary school's aftercare program. But what if there was a safe, fun and affordable place for kids from all backgrounds to go to get a snack, do homework, hang out and be challenged and excited by learning such things as the violin or touch football or moviemaking? And what if parents and the public and private sectors came together to figure out how to do it?

Jennifer Rinehart of the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance said J.C. Penney is one of the few corporations in America to address the latchkey issue in both the work and school settings. It adopted scheduling software that seeks to accommodate the flexible work schedule requests of its employees, most of them mothers. And it has contributed more than $70 million over the past 10 years to support after-school programs.

Liam is perfectly happy having some alone time for now. He's an independent and responsible kid. I live in a safe neighborhood. I will try to work from home more afternoons and not feel so guilty about it. I will look into after-school clubs. I will try to find a babysitter and sign him up for swim team and music lessons and encourage him to go to band practice. I will cobble something together.

But plenty of his classmates will just go home alone.

schulteb@washpost.com

Brigid Schulte is a local enterprise reporter for The Washington Post.

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