Are we raising a generation of latch-key children?

Two Washington educators recently told People magazine that 3 million children between the ages of 6 and 13 are going home from school to empty houses every day.

Many of the children of working parents -- including my own -- do go home from school alone. But they are not really alone. They are firmly attached to their parents after school by the universal umbilical cord: the telephone.

Don't get me wrong. This is not my idea of the ideal day-care arrangement. My ideal after-school surrogate would be a loving grandmother greeting the kids with cookies baking in the oven. But all the grandmothers we know are out working for a living, or hitting golf balls in Florida after lifetimes of working for a living.

My second choice would be to sign up the kids for an after-school program that challenged their minds, captured their imaginations and kept them away from the soap operas. But about the only programs around are glorified nursery schools, which our kids outgrew years ago.

We would happily hire a high school student to sit, but they can make more dishing out burgers at fast-food emporiums than dishing up milk and cookies for our kids.

In fact, our choices come down to a 14-year-old sitter sitting on our phone with her best friend or our 12-year-old on the phone to our offices. So we swallow hard, hand the kid a key and tell her not to hesitate to reach out and touch someone -- us.

Some parents have a regular routine for phoning home. One of my former co-workers called daily at 3:15. With the delivery of a drill sergeant, she issued orders to her daughter for dog walking, housework and homework.

But most of us operate under the "Don't call them, they'll call you" principle. Kids, of course, call only in cases of dire emergency, such as:

* Famine. Many a mother has been called out of a meeting only to hear a plaintive voice wailing, "I can't find the chocolate chip cookies," or "We ran out of milk."

* Disease. One sneeze is a serious illness; two are an epidemic. Doctors aren't the only ones prescribing long distance. We tell the sufferers to lie down with a cool cloth, to drink plenty of liquids and above all to stay away from siblings, in case it's catching.

* War. Two kids can be company one minute, armed hostility the next. Parents negotiate by shuttling the phone to hear the claims of both sides. When all else fails, we declare the TV to be a no-man's-land and send both kids to their rooms until dinner.

* Poverty. When the calls come in, it isn't always clear what the message is. Sometimes "I'm lonely" really means, "If you come home early, we can get new sneakers before the store closes." Those kids have our number, in more ways than one.

In truth, working parents are like the air traffic controllers in those airport movies who talk down the instant pilots who have never flown before. We sit in our towers, telephone in hand, and talk our kids through their traumas, real or imagined. Most of the time, the kids land safely.

In a few years, this will all be behind us. The kids will stop calling and then we will really start worrying.

For now, we can only comfort our children and ourselves with the thought that no child is really alone if he or she can phone father or dial M for mommy.

Why do you think they call it Ma Bell?