The New Latchkey Kids

Growing Up Too Fast

alone in the kitchen

Peter Ardito

Child-Care Challenges

The Afterschool Alliance numbers, while scary, don't include the numerous caregiving breakdowns that occur before school and during evenings, weekends, and the summer. "We have a number of kids who go home alone when we close at 5, including in the dark in the winter," says Martha Petty, executive director of Flowing Wells Extension Program, a nonprofit that provides before- and after-school care at five sites in Tucson.

Summer is an especially difficult time for working parents to coordinate care. A 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that 3.5 million children ages 5 to 11 -- one in eight -- were left unattended during July and August while their parents worked.

Kristin Wilton, a single mom of four in Tucson and an executive assistant for a community health center, used to receive tuition assistance for her sons' after-school and summer care. But then she got a $40-per-week raise, which bumped her out of eligibility for the program. She couldn't afford regular care (which cost three times as much), so her 10-year-old was forced to become the caretaker of his twin 6-year-old brothers for three hours after school and all day during the summer. "I thought I was doing everything right," Wilton says. "I got a good job, worked hard to be a role model for my children. What was I supposed to do -- tell my boss, 'Thank you very much for giving me a raise, but no thank you?'"

How Old Is Old Enough?

There are few laws governing when a child is permitted to stay home alone. Only Maryland (which sets the minimum age at 8) and Illinois (which forbids leaving a child younger than 14 without supervision) have specific legislation on the books. Other states merely offer recommended guidelines, such as advising that children under 12 not be left on their own for an unreasonable period of time.

These standards are purposely kept vague because a lot depends on the personality and capability of your child. Does she know how to answer the phone without revealing personal information? Would she know whom to call in an emergency?

Some 8-year-olds might be fine on their own for a short time, says Kimberly Allen, an assistant professor and extension specialist for the Department of 4-H Youth Development at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. Generally, though, a child is not ready to be left alone at home until middle school (age 11 or 12), since until then his decision-making skills are suspect and he could easily panic when faced with a dangerous situation.

Coping on their own is especially hard on the growing number of tweens and early teens who are left in charge of younger siblings on a daily basis. "These children are forced to play a grown-up role before they're ready," says Angela Sasseville, a family counselor and author of Families Under Financial Stress.

Yet she cautions against reflexively pointing fingers at parents who place their kids in this position. "Nothing cuts a parent to the bone more than the allegation that she's being neglectful," Sasseville says.

Just ask Deanna Velasquez, a hair stylist in Denver, and her husband, Joe, a heating-and-air-conditioning repairman. When both their businesses suffered in the downturn, Joe no longer felt comfortable leaving his job early, and Velasquez had to work late to make ends meet. Ultimately, she enlisted her older son, Dakota, then 13, to pick up his then 11-year-old brother, Noah, at school, then walk a mile and a half to an empty house. "I felt sick to my stomach the first day," she says, "but we don't have any money for child care. What else are we going to do?"

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