During middle childhood, youngsters need supervision. A responsible adult should be available to get them ready and off to school in the morning and watch over them after school until you return home from work. Even children approaching adolescence—the eleven- and twelve-year-olds—should not come home to an empty house in the afternoon unless they show unusual maturity for their age.
Maturity is the key here and is a much more important criterion than age. Some fourteen-year-olds still require supervision; some twelve-year-olds can be trusted to come home, do their homework, and care for themselves responsibly.
When deciding whether your child can return home to an empty house after school, keep the following in mind: Studies show that pre-teenagers and teenagers who come home to an unsupervised house—so-called latchkey kids—are more likely to use alcohol and other illegal drugs. One study of five thousand eighth-graders (twelve- and thirteen-year-olds from a range of economic and ethnic backgrounds) concluded that children who care for themselves for eleven or more hours per week were twice as likely to consume alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and use marijuana as children who were supervised.
Although being physically present is the best way to supervise a child, sometimes that is not possible. If alternative adult supervision is not available, parents should make special efforts to supervise their children from a distance. Children should have a set time when they are expected to arrive at home and should check in with a neighbor or with a parent by telephone. Parents and children should agree upon a regular routine for the child that is written down and posted in a conspicuous place alongside emergency telephone numbers. Such a schedule might consist of having a snack, doing homework, feeding a pet, and setting the dinner table. On some days the child may have an after-school activity or go to a friend's house to play. Parents should always know where their unsupervised children are and what they are doing.
When evaluating child care options, determine whether other family members can handle these responsibilities. For example, does a grandparent or other relative live nearby, and is he or she available and willing to help? Is there a responsible teenager—perhaps an older sibling—who can supervise your child for a couple of hours in the afternoon until you arrive home?
If you choose a commercial after-school program, inquire about the training of the staff. There should be a high child-to-staff ratio, and the rooms and the playground should be safe.
Also talk to personnel at your child's school and at the local YMCA about after-school programs, which are growing in number in many parts of the country. These programs tend to be structured, offer a variety of activities, and include time for homework. Many are reasonably priced.
If cost is an important factor, consider pooling resources with neighbors and hiring one mother to watch the children of a number of families. Or set up a co-op of several families in which each parent shares after-school child care on a rotating basis. Some companies now offer their employees flexible time schedules—perhaps allowing mothers and fathers to start work early so they can be home at three o'clock when the kids return from school.
Some employees take work home with them, spending their last two job hours at their desks at home. Twelve-hour shifts, with four off-days each week, and part-time employment are other alternative patterns of work that some parents are finding suitable. These options can be effective solutions to the child care problem for school-age children. Each family has its own needs and each must look for its own best circumstances.