Friday, August 18, 2000

Home-alone alternatives

After-school options for older kids, 9-15, are increasing

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A year ago, David Walker asked for a key to his house. The 11-year-old asks more frequently now, but his parents continue to resist.

[photo] Quela McLaughlin of Forest Park and her son, Garrick.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        “I really feel 10, 11, 12, 13, is too young to be left alone,” says his mother, Beth Walker of Fairfield Township.

        “There's too many influences in the world today. I will leave him in latchkey as long as possible, then I'll search for other activities that he can do. I strongly disagree with children going home and sitting in front of a television set until mom and dad get home.”

        Ms. Walker is not alone. More parents are choosing after school programs to keep their middle schoolers safe and challenged.

        Nationwide, communities are starting to realize the need for after-school care for older children. Quality after-care for children, ages 9-15, was a focus of the National Older Kids Conference, which met in Cincinnati this month.

        “The movement began with parents' concern for the safety of their children in their out-of-school time, coupled with the increase in risk taking behavior by those children left alone and the community at large noticing the increase in crime,” says Chris Schmidt, Out of School Time specialist for 4C, a local child-care resource and referral agency.

[photo] Shawn Pershing, 12 (left), David Walker, 11, and Jacob Plogman, 11, work with teacher Mike Rosser making brownies at the Fairfield City Schools' summer latchkey program.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        The agency fielded 396 calls last year for information on care for children ages 9 and older. In the first seven months of 2000, the agency had already logged 417 calls.

        Middle school-aged latchkey children pose a dilemma for parents because they're too old for day care, but might not be mature enough to be left home alone. Because maturity levels vary, experts are reluctant to name an age kids can stay home alone. Many suggest that kids be at least 11 or 12.

        “Most people agree children 14, 15 and 16 are old enough to stay home alone,” says Bob Stonehill, director of the U.S. Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

        “The question is "Do you want them to stay home alone?' This is the age when children often get in trouble. Whether kids can be left alone isn't always the question. The question is "Should they be left alone?' Or are there better things they can be doing to help them grow academically and developmentally?

        “Part of the after-school program is to provide child care, but another part of after school is providing extended time to help them succeed in school and in life.”

Critical years

               As many as 15 million elementary and middle school children are left unsupervised during non-school hours. The gap between parents' and kids' schedules means that kids spend 20 to 25 hours a week unsupervised at home or in after school care, the American Youth Policy Forum reports.

    Some parents choose self-care for their middle school students. It may be personal choice or lack of affordable programs in their neighborhood.
    4C, a child care resource and referral agency, suggests asking your child these questions to help gauge their ability to stay home alone. The quiz also helps parents talk to their kids about what to do in certain situations.
    Each question is followed by “Is this an emergency? What should you do? Who should you call?”
    1. You are making toast in the toaster. It gets stuck and catches fire. The toaster is near the curtains, and they catch on fire, too. (Answer: Yes, call the fire department (911) from a neighbor's house.
    2. You come home after school and the front door of our house is standing open. (Answer: Yes, call police (911) from a neighbor's house).
    3. You are putting away the dishes and accidentally drop a glass on the floor. It breaks and shatters. (Answer: No, simply clean up carefully and throw away).
    4. You are cutting with scissors. You cut your finger, and it bleeds a little bit. (Answer: No, wash cut carefully and put a bandage over the cut).
    5. You are watching TV and smell smoke. You look around the room but do not see where it is coming from. (Answer: Yes, call the fire department (911) from a neighbor's house).
    6. You go outside to get the mail. The wind blows the door shut, the door locks and the key is inside. (Answer: No, back-up procedures should include an extra key hidden outside or kept at a neighbor's house).
    7. Your sister falls down the stairs and bumps her head. She will not answer you when you talk to her. (Answer: Yes, call 911 and then parent).
    8. The phone rings and someone starts saying “bad” things to you. (Answer: No, unless calls continue. Hang up, but if the caller calls again, hang up and call parent or neighbor).
    Source: Is My Child Ready? Self-Care Assessment & School Age Resources. The 4C publication is $5 at 1225 E. McMillan St., Cincinnati 45206. 221-0033, Ext. 352.
        Ages 9 to 15 are critical years when kids start to experiment. Latchkey children are at a higher risk for drug, alcohol and tobacco use, delinquent behavior, sexual promiscuity, violence and injury, truancy and poor school performance than kids who are supervised after school, studies show. The juvenile crime rate triples between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

        The benefits of placing middle school students in after school programs are documented. “Typically, we see an improvement in attendance, a measurable decline in youth violence and in disciplinary actions, better communication skills and better peer group relationships,” Mr. Stonehill says.

        The issue is not so much about a child's ability or inability to be responsible and stay home alone, says Judy Samelson, acting director of the Afterschool Alliance. It's about lost learning and social contact time.

        “Our kids today have so many opportunities in front of them, but they're no different than the rest of us,” she says. “If not guided or stimulated, we can all waste an awful lot of time.”

Parents' strategies

               Parents send their children to after school programs for a variety of reasons. They want them safe and supervised by adults. They want them to have fun with friends their own age. They want them to get a head start on homework and be exposed to enrichment activities.

        Quela McLaughlin of Forest Park uses a combination of self-care and after school care for her 10-year-old son, Garrick. Ms. McLaughlin chose to spend more time with him this summer, and does more work from home. When he's alone, he has strict guidelines, such as whether to open the door or use the phone.

        “When he's home by himself, we have codes we use,” says Ms. McLaughlin, owner of Unique Things, a business that sells gifts and home decor. “When I call, he knows it's me, depending on the number of times the phone rings. I make up a checklist of things he is to do if he's home by himself. We go over those things when I get home so I know if those things are done he hasn't had an opportunity to get into trouble.”

        During the school year, Ms. McLaughlin sends Garrick to the after-school program at Cameron Park Elementary School, Forest Park, mostly for enrichment, such as computer classes, and social benefits. It also helps her as a single working mom.

        “There are other children there for him to interact with since my son is an only child. It gives them time to do their homework. By the time I pick him up or we get home, all I have to do is check it.”

        Meanwhile, Ms. Walker sends David, a sixth-grader, to the Fairfield Intermediate after school and summer programs. It's the ideal situation, she says. He's supervised. He's around kids his age. The activities are challenging and fun. Time is set aside for studying.

        David, however, would like to go home after school. “If I would stay home, I would feel more responsible,” he says. During his time alone, David says, “I'd probably watch TV and eat potato chips.”

        His mother worries about what could happen. “There's going to be circumstances that occur. What if they can't get ahold of mom or dad? What if they can't get ahold of a neighbor? Sometimes, there's crime or kids coming along and trying to lead them down the wrong path. Kids, today, still need proper guidance. I think even at 14 years old, even if they're very good kids, things can still happen.”

        Maybe when he's 15 he can spend small amounts of time at home, his mother says. But she and her husband plan to keep him so occupied that he'll hardly ever be home alone.

        “He keeps telling me his friends stay home alone,” says Ms. Walker, graduate program coordinator in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. “I just can't bring myself to do it. I don't know when. There's just nothing positive to being home by yourself. You hear of kids coming home at 9 and 10. I cringe at the thought of it.”


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