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.
Obesity is common. Being home alone and staying indoors means that many of these kids aren’t running around or biking or playing. Instead they are snacking in front of the TV. They eat so they won’t be bored. They eat for entertainment. They eat as a way to deal with loneliness.
Although parents may tell them to do their homework and not to watch TV, most kids report that they don’t spend much time with schoolwork or reading. Instead they go straight to some kind of screen (TV, the computer, or video games) to keep them company, to keep their fears at bay, and to reduce the boredom of being by themselves.
It’s easy for parents to set rules but it isn’t easy to enforce them. The rule may be that other kids aren’t to be in the house, but if the kids are careful, their parents won’t know. The rule may be to do homework first, then TV, but many kids do their homework in front of the TV, if at all. The rule may be not to go on chat sites with strangers but with no one to monitor them, kids often go to places on the computer that they shouldn’t.
Siblings frequently are asked to care for younger kids. Sometimes it works, especially when there is an age difference of at least 5 years. If the older child experiences doing care as having status and embraces the responsibility, it can have a positive impact on both. But too often, kids only a couple of years older are charged with taking care of younger sibs. Often the older child resents the younger ones and the younger ones won’t grant the older one any authority. Instead of being company for each other, the children end up alternately fighting with and ignoring each other.