Latchkey children. New studies indicate that children left alone may not be in jeopardy; but some social researchers aren't so sure

``When I go home after school I watch the soap operas,'' says Lorraine, a sixth-grader in the summer program here at the William H. Taft middle school. Sometimes one of her parents is home from work. But often they're not. ``So I just watch TV. It keeps me busy.''

Lorraine's after-school regimen of watching television, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend, is shared by many of her classmates at this school.

The children, drawn to this summer program from a variety of Boston's ethnically diverse neighborhoods, have a lot in common with kids throughout the United States. Their interest in things like skateboarding, for instance, and their experience -- soon to resume this September -- of spending two or three after-school hours each weekday relatively free of adult supervision.

Like millions of their peers across the country, they are ``latchkey children'' -- kids left on their own after school, as more and more mothers join the workforce.

How serious is the ``latchkey'' issue? Are children being hurt emotionally, academically, socially? Researchers give varying answers.

``My basic concern,'' says Hyman Rodman, director of the Family Research Center at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, ``is that there's been a tendency to focus on consequences for children, concluding that children are in quite definite jeopardy.''

That conclusion is ``premature,'' he argues, given the thin stack of findings to date comparing ``self-care'' children to those who regularly have an adult around after school.

Some recent studies -- including one by Dr. Rodman and colleagues that centered on 96 children in the Piedmont area of North Carolina -- have indicated that youngsters left to care for themselves may not be doing any worse than those who have an adult nearby.

Rodman's study found no significant difference between ``self-care'' and ``adult-care'' children on such measures as self-esteem, a feeling of control over events, and behavior. Research on 349 children in suburban Dallas by University of Texas psychologist Deborah Vandell, probing academic and social well-being, came to a similar conclusion.

But be cautious about jumping to conclusions, warns Laurence Steinberg, professor of child and family studies at the University of Wisconsin.

``It seems unwise to make sweeping generalizations about latchkey kids . . . that they're either fine or damaged,'' he says.

Dr. Steinberg's study of 865 children between the ages of 10 and 15 in the Madison area indicated that the impact of the ``latchkey'' experience on children depends to a large degree on the strength of the parent/child relationship.

Youngsters left to simply ``hang out'' after school certainly tend toward trouble, says Steinberg. But latchkey children who have responsibilities and know they have to check in with Mom, Dad, or some other relative -- who feel their parents' presence and concern even though the adults are absent -- are no more prone to getting into trouble than are kids who have an adult at home, according to his findings.

Variations on that type of arrangement are common, judging by responses from the children at the Taft school.

Sixth-grader Demetrios has to check in with his grandmother before charging out on his skateboard. Xiomara, a rather thoughtful classmate of Demetrios's, says she has to call her mother every afternoon. Xiomara's after-school routine includes looking after a younger brother and sister, which can be ``kind of hard,'' she admits.

Researchers seem to concur on one thing: 10- to 15-year-olds are the ones most likely to be negatively affected by the latchkey experience.

These kids are often thought of as capable of taking care of themselves. But in fact, observes Michelle Seligson, director of the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College, ``in some ways they're more vulnerable than the younger group,'' particularly to ``serious risks like drugs.''

The middle school years, however, are also a time when kids feel a strong need to be independent, and that complicates things, she adds. In her view, the key is to provide a setting that sets some bounds for youngsters, while respecting that quest for freedom.

Thin, red-headed Kevin epitomizes a self-assured 12-year-old. He totes a big radio as he talks about how he and his hefty friend Stephen, sitting nearby, practice bike racing after school. His dad has an office at home, and he's often at that office when Kevin arrives in the afternoon.

Is Kevin ever scared during those times he is home alone? ``Naw,'' comes the answer, and ``if I'm outside and anyone tries to jump me I can lose 'em.''

Cockiness aside, Kevin, like most of the kids at Taft, is certainly aware that his city neighborhood may harbor some dangers. And that's another factor to keep in mind when weighing the latchkey issue. Obviously, things are ``much better when they're not in a community where they feel their safety is threatened,'' notes Leah Lefstein, acting director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina.

Mrs. Lefstein helped compile a reference book of programs that effectively address the needs of latchkey children, particularly those in the 10 to 15 age group. [See box at right for a sampling.] A prime value of such programs, she believes, is that they often help kids form an ``attachment to their communities, at a time when it's very important to do so.''

Since public and private funding for youth programs tends to be at a premium these days, the gap between the numbers of children who might be helped by organized after-school activities and the quantity of such activities amounts to ``a chasm,'' says Lefstein.

That worry, plus scholarly concern over the implications of the latchkey issue, can only increase, according to Wisconsin researcher Steinberg.

``The phenomenon is not going to go away,'' Steinberg says, ``since no one is forecasting any reversal of the employment trends which have caused the situation.''

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