WORKING MOTHER MAGAZINE has just published the results of a survey that focuses on hidden majority of children of working parents, namely the older children, those who take care of themselves, either because their parents can't find or afford child care, or because the child kicks up such a fuss about staying with a baby sitter that the parents cave in.
Whatever the reason, these untended children have produced a motherload of guilt for American women.
As any working mother who lets her children care for themselves will tell you, it is precisely while she is working and they are home alone that they get into the worst sorts of trouble. These are the times that try a working mother's soul. That's when the children manage to sliver themselves with the butcher knife while making a peanut butter sandwich, to fall off bikes and skateboards and need stitches or casts, to take your tranquilizers instead of their allergy pills, to get into fights and to lose their house keys. It gets worse when they are older. Then they keep track of their house keys and discover True Love in your home while you are slaving away at your office earning the money that keeps them in Nikes.
In spite of all this, it is a fact of American life that a majority of school-age children of working parents have to take care of themselves, a fact discovered some years ago by Dr. Hyman Rodman, a professor of child development and family relations at the University of North Carolina. He wanted to find out how this arrangement was working out and his survey was published in Working Mother. According to the survey results, things seem to be working out fine.
Things seem to be working out so well, in fact, that some 45 percent of the people surveyed attached letters to the survey explaining how their children take care of themselves. Working Mother says the survey covers children up to 14, but most of those who starred in their mothers' letters were between 7 and 12 years old. While the arrangements may not be guilt-free and fool-proof, the working mothers have come up with a list of five common laws for their children to honor that will at least avert most common household catastrophes.
Rule 1: Absolutely no one is allowed in the house, not even friends, without prior permission. Working Mother tells us that "several women said they feel company increases the chances of fighting, too much junk food and TV -- and too little homework." One mother also mentioned that you, the hostess in absentia , are leaglly responsible for your child's friends' safety. Rule 1 could also go along toward postponing the child's discovery of True Love.
Rule 2: The child should not open the door unless the child is told someone is expected or unless the person is someone the child knows. This, of course, is a very good rule, particularly if you are expecting a bill collector or a process server, in which case it is very important to stress to your child that he is not to rat on you and tell the visitor what time mommy will be home.
Rule 3: Children should have specific tasks to do to keep them busy while they are caring for themselves. The working mothers in this survey acknowledged, apparently, that most of their children watch TV while they are alone, but they said they give children chores to do before they watch it and limits on how much they can see. Chores they mentioned, for example, included feeding pets, folding clothes, setting the table, doing homework. That section of the article, I must admit, left me wondering where those working mothers found their chilren. To wit:
"Some readers reported feeling sheepish about asking a child to do housework when they themselves aren't home. But most of them were surprised at how quickly children accustom themselves to the chores and how often the children assume additional jobs without being asked, "according to the magazine. I do not ever recall feeling sheepish about asking children to do housework when I've been at work, but then again, I do not recall any indication that one of them was on the verge of assuming an additional job without being asked. The magazine points out that the average time that its survey respondents let their children at home alone was one to two hours, which for the basic American teenager is barely enough time to get a snack and finish telephoning the people he left on the schoolbus.
Rule 4: Children cannot use any electrical appliance other than the stereo, TV and radio. This means they cannot use the stove to warm up the dinner casserole for their afternoon snack, but it presumably also means no electric hairdryers and no blenders for milkshakes and no running of the dishwasher or clotheswasher or clothesdryer in case the child in question is seized with the urge to Assume an Additional Job Without Being Asked. This rule may need work.
Rule 5: Children should never tell a telephone caller that they are alone in the house. Working Mother points out that they should also never tell the caller that their mother isn't home. The child should simply say you can't come to the phone right now but you will call them back. Then, the child should call you at work and have you call the aluminum siding solicitor, or whoever is trying to reach you, from your office.
That is useful advice, but it's not nearly as inspired as the advice my niece came up with when she overheard her mother telling the Sears repairman not to come between 1 and 3 because no one would be home then. "Don't tell people when the house is going to be empty," the 14-year-old admonished her mother. "Tell them not to come between 1 and 3 because that's when you exercise the attack dogs."