Children Who are Home Alone
A recent U.S. Census report shows 7 million of the nation’s 38 million children ages 5 to 14 are left home alone regularly. For many parents, this is not a happy or freely chosen decision. The increase in single-parent households, the need for both parents to work in two-parent families, the lack of availability of affordable and constructive childcare, the fact that older relatives are working themselves, are too far away, or are unwilling, and the fact that school days are out of sync with workdays all create an untenable situation. For many families, there are gaps in child supervision that seem impossible to fill.
Many parents feel guilty about it. Their own tension and anxiety goes up from the time they know that school has let out until they can get home. Distracted by worry, they find that their productivity goes down and their clock-watching goes up until they can walk in their own front doors.
Other parents minimize the issue as a way to get by. Unable to deal with the worry and unable to change the situation, they put themselves in a state of functional denial, convincing themselves that of course everything is all right, that the kids are more mature than they really are, and that bad things only happen to other people.
Still other parents parent by cell phone. Their kids are instructed to call when they leave school, when they get home, after their snack, while they do their homework, and whenever they have a problem. It keeps the parents in touch but it means the parent isn’t working effectively and the child is tethered to the phone.
What is the effect on the kids who are frequently left alone?
Many kids are afraid. They may be afraid of the ordinary noises of an otherwise empty house. They may be afraid of burglars. They may be afraid of the tougher kids on the block. TV and video games have taught our kids that there is plenty to be afraid of in the world. Their own experience has shown them that they are little and vulnerable. When asked why they don’t tell their parents about their fears, the kids reply that they don’t want to be seen as babies, they don’t want to worry their parents, or they don’t want to let their folks down.
Many kids report they are lonesome. Kids who are home alone often aren’t allowed to have other kids over when mom or dad isn’t there. They aren’t allowed to go to other kids’ houses if those kids also are home alone. Frequently they can’t participate in play dates, after-school sports, or extracurricular activities because no parent availability means no transportation. The result is that many kids left alone don’t develop the social skills of their peers. In order to stay safe, they aren’t out playing with other kids and learning how to get along.