“99 Percent of the time we would follow the rules but you know, every time every now and then you want to just stray from the circle and do what you want instead of the rules.”
– Jamal, 16 years old
We know them as latch key kids. Most afternoons they come home alone and unlock the door to a world free from adult supervision.
Once inside, they often encounter boredom … and temptation.
Because both of his parents work, sixteen-year-old Jamal Inegbedion spends many afternoons home alone with his sister. He says it’s hard to be good all the time, “99 Percent of the time we would follow the rules but you know, every time every now and then you want to just stray from the circle and do what you want instead of the rules.”
Whether young or old, kids alone are prime targets for trouble.
“When there’s no parent around or anyone involved in supervising them they have idle time,” explains Judge Greg Adams, “and what is the old adage idle time is the devil’s workshop. And as a result of that, they get with other young people and they are experimenting with drugs. That’s when a lot of it takes place right after school before the parents get home.”
So, how do parents decide when to leave kids alone? How to keep them safe? And how to keep them out of trouble?
Experts say leaving kids alone before age twelve is a big risk.
After that, “Try very short periods of time and see how the child reacts and how fearful they are,” advises David Hellwig from Child Protective Services. “A parent really knows their child best about their maturity level. [And] Certainly, having emergency phone numbers being immediately available; whether there’s a supportive neighbor relative close by.”
Give them specific instructions, chores to keep them busy, rules to follow and make sure kids know there are consequences for bad behavior.
Jamal’s mom says her kids know the rules … and what will happen if they don’t follow them. “I would let them know that if they didn’t follow instruction I would punish them but most of all worse things could happen to them.”
Tips for Parents
Every day in America, nearly 8 million children go home to an empty house. Experts say, the after school hours are the peak time for juvenile crime and risky behaviors. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that teens are at the highest risk of being a victim of violence between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. and the peak hour for juvenile crime is from 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., just after school is dismissed. Studies also show that students who don’t take part in after-school activities, such as sports or after-school programs are 49 percent more likely to have used drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teen parents.
The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center defines after-school programs as safe, structured activities that convene regularly in the hours after school and offer activities to help children learn new skills and develop into responsible adults. Activities may cover such topics as technology, reading, math, science and the arts. And the programs may also offer new experiences for children, such as community service, internships or tutoring and mentoring opportunities.
As a parent, why should you consider an after-school program for your child? Without structured, supervised activities in the after-school hours, youth are at greater risk of being victims of crime or participating in antisocial behaviors.
If you are interested in enrolling your child in an after-school program, you have several different types from which to choose. The Educational Resources Information Center says that a good after-school program should offer children the chance to have fun and feel comforted, as well as motivate them to learn. The best programs offer a comprehensive set of activities that do the following for your child:
Foster his or her self-worth and develop his or her self-care skills
Develop his or her personal and interpersonal social skills and promote respect for cultural diversity.
Provide help with homework, tutoring and other learning activities
Provide time and space for quiet study
Provide new, developmentally appropriate enrichment activities to add to his or her learning at school, help him or her develop thinking and problem-solving skills and spark curiosity and love of learning
Provide recreational and physical activities to develop physical skills and constructively channel his or her energy pent up after a day sitting in a classroom
Encourage participation in individual sports activities to help develop self-esteem by striving for a personal best, and participation in group sports to provide lessons about cooperation and conflict resolution
Provide age-appropriate job readiness training
Provide information about career and career-training options, preferably through firsthand experiences with community business leaders and tours of local businesses
Some programs may be excellent while others may be lacking in resources and staff, and therefore, less attractive to parents. It is important when choosing an after-school program to ask questions, visit the facility and get to know the staff.
21st Century Community Learning Centers
Boys & Girls Clubs of America
Educational Resources Information Center
National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention