Children of working parents are much less likely to get into trouble if they go home after school, even to an empty house, than if they go to a friend's house with no adult present or "hang out" at favorite spots in the neighborhood, according to a study released yesterday by the William T. Grant Foundation.
The study, based on surveys last year of 865 children ages 10 to 16 in Madison, Wis., confirmed the findings of earlier studies that so-called "latchkey children" who went home after school to an empty house were not much more susceptible to peer pressure for antisocial behavior than children who returned to a home with an adult present.
This finding was particularly strong in cases where the parent kept in touch with the child and exercised supervision from afar, according to the survey.
But children who went to a friend's house where there was no adult supervision or who spent their afternoons roaming shopping centers and neighborhood hangouts were significantly more susceptible to peer pressure toward antisocial behavior, the study found.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a University of Wisconsin professor of child and family studies who conducted the study, to be published in the journal Developmental Psychology, said that the "parents' absence per se is not a major factor" in whether the child eventually is likely to be drawn into trouble. "More important are the settings where the self-care occurs."
Patterns of child-rearing -- for example, if the parents are too authoritarian or too permissive -- and whether the parents try to supervise their children even while absent are important, too, he said.
"The key factor seems to be whether the parent supervises the child in absentia," Steinberg said.
The study was funded by the Grant Foundation and the University of Wisconsin graduate school.
Steinberg's 865 children were students at public schools in Madison. The breakdown of the group was 86 percent white, about half boys and half girls; 40 percent with blue-collar parents; 30 percent white collar, and 30 percent professional. About two-thirds of the children lived with both natural parents, others with their mothers and stepfathers and a fifth with only their mothers. Most of the mothers worked full time.
Steinberg measured the children by a standard index of susceptibility to peer pressure to perform antisocial acts. Children were asked how they would behave in certain situations -- for example, whether they would steal a piece of candy from an open bag at a store if their friends did so and urged them to do so also. The higher the susceptibility score, the more likely the child would be to get in trouble.
For boys, Steinberg found that those who normally went home to a house where a parent was present averaged the lowest susceptibility score -- 55.96 on the scale.
Those who went to their homes and took care of themselves without an adult present had slightly but not significantly higher scores, averaging 56.73. In virtually all these cases, the parent knew the child was at home and was often in touch with the child, providing a measure of supervision from afar.
Steinberg found that boys who spent their afternoons unsupervised at a friend's home had a substantially higher susceptibility score -- 59.43.
The highest score -- 64.58 -- was for the group that said it usually spent afterschool hours "hanging out" at various places outside the home, without contact with parents or other supervising adults.
The pattern was similar for girls, although their overall susceptibility rates were slightly lower.
Within the overall pattern -- that children were least susceptible to peer pressure for antisocial behavior if they went home after school -- there were slight variations by age group and family status: early adolescents scored higher in susceptibility than pre-adolescents or older adolescents, and youngsters from single-parent or stepparent homes were rated more susceptible than those from homes with both natural parents present.
But the major overall finding was that children who went to their own homes after school were least susceptible to peer pressure for antisocial behavior, regardless of age, sex and household composition.