A generation ago, almost all children spent their after-school hours under the watchful eye of parents or neighbors. These days, as both parents increasingly work full time, many kids aren't supervised by anybody.
It's something that has nagged parents and policymakers for years, but only now are they getting comprehensive data to uncover how widespread the practice is. While various programs and initiatives have helped working parents provide day care for preschool children, new research suggests that attention to the needs of school-age children has lagged.
According to a Census report released today, almost half of all kids ages 12 to 14 spent just under seven hours home alone, and roughly 1 of every 10 elementary-school children spends 4-1/2 hours a week unsupervised by an adult. Some of them are as young as five years old.
With almost no historical data, comparisons with the past are problematic, and experts are unsure whether the ranks of so-called latchkey children are growing. But they agree that the numbers are a cause for concern - especially because the afternoon hours are the peak time for juvenile crime.
"We've given attention to child care and early childhood, but kids don't magically disappear when they turn 3 or 5 or 12," says Nancy Rankin of the National Parenting Association in New York. "In many ways, children's needs grow more complicated as adolescents."
Today's US Census Bureau report concludes that 6.9 million school children - nearly 20 percent of those between the ages of 5 and 14 - regularly cared for themselves without an adult around. Most of those were 12 or older. But even among younger children, the numbers proved significant.
Some 2 percent of the nation's five-year-olds spent an average of 4-1/2 hours a week unsupervised by an adult (although they may have been with an older sibling). It's this group of children - aged 5 to 11 - that is causing the greatest consternation.
"We feel concerned about the younger children," says Kathryn Tout, research associate with Child Trends, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "It's a missed opportunity for them to be in a setting that's more developmentally appropriate. But also it could be potentially dangerous."
The Census numbers are somewhat outdated, since they report 1995 figures. But a Child Trends report released last month shows much the same phenomenon. Using 1997 data from the Urban Institute, the group found that some 4 million children aged 6 to 12 who had working mothers spent time home alone. If anything, these figures may underestimate the situation, Ms. Tout adds, because parents are reluctant to report that they leave their children unsupervised.
The reasons parents are letting their kids fend for themselves are not surprising. The biggest factor is that parents lack time because more of them are employed and work longer hours than they did a generation ago.
The percentage of married mothers who work outside the home nearly doubled between 1969 and 1996. As a result, the average family today has 22 fewer hours each week to spend at home than families had 30 years ago, says the Council of Economic Advisers. That's nearly a day less per week; more than two years by the time a child graduates from high school.
That time deficit explains much. Grade-school children with working parents are more than twice as likely to spend part of the day caring for themselves than those whose parents don't, says Kristin Smith, author of the Census report. The general pattern holds true in single-parent as well as dual-parent households. Even mothers who work part-time are far more likely to rely on their children for self-care than mothers who don't work, she adds.
Beyond that, however, the trends get murky. The poorest families are least able to pay for child care. Yet the Census data show they're far less likely to leave their children at home than families who earn at least twice the poverty income. Of course, families that work more, earn more, says Ms. Smith, and they're more likely to live in better neighborhoods where they would feel comfortable leaving children unsupervised.
Another potential factor for children home alone is the rising cost of child care. In 1995, parents paid an average $85 a week for such care - about 50 percent more than they spent a decade earlier, even after adjusting for inflation. And based on further analysis not yet published, Smith says, it appears these child-care costs are a big reason many families choose to leave even five- to eight-year-olds to care for themselves a few hours a week.
Because the research is so new, no one is certain which way the trend is going.
Some researchers suggest that welfare reform, which pushed many poor people into the work force, may be causing the numbers to rise. Others say the numbers of home-alone children may be falling, because of funding boosts from the Clinton administration and private efforts such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to increase the number of after-school programs in the United States.
In the end, today's mothers have been able to spend about as much time with their children as mothers in the 1960s, mostly by spending less time on housework and adjusting work schedules. Mothers in both eras spent about 5.5 waking hours each day with their children, says Suzanne Bianchi, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.
But many researchers wonder whether parents' current pace is sustainable. "It used to be that ... society was organized so that women would be at home to take care of these needs," says Donna Lenhoff, general counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington. "Our society is no longer organized like that. But we haven't restructured the workplace."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society