SAN DIEGO — There are moments in the life of a child when nothing but an audience will do.
"Hey, Mom, let me tell you about this ," an 11-year-old might say.
"Dad, you won't believe what happened at school today."
Dad might not believe it, but chances are he won't hear it--nor will Mom. At least, not right away.
That's the predicament of latchkey children--children who walk home alone from school each day, let themselves in, maybe with a key jangling around their neck, and sit there for hours, watching television or doing homework until, finally, a conversational partner materializes with a hug.
Usually, it's the parent--who's exhausted and maybe more in need of a hug than the child.
Why do parents choose the latchkey alternative?
Most say live-in care is too expensive, or that after-school programs are expensive, inadequate or both. Most say they would welcome private day-care but find it rare to the point of non-existent, especially for children from 7 to 12 years old who need such a service only a few hours each afternoon. Most day-care providers say such a small amount of time just isn't cost-effective.
Nikki Wadstein has been a latchkey child for three years. (Her parents have been divorced for nine). She's only 11, but every night, she cooks dinner for herself and her mom, cleans house, does her homework and watches TV in lieu of having someone to share the good times with. Occasionally, she swims with a friend in the apartment complex where she and her mother live, but most of the time, she stays inside, safe but unsupervised.
'Get to Be by Myself'
"The good points, I guess, are that I get to be by myself," Nikki said. "The bad points are, if no one's home, I get scared. Yeah, I mean it, I get scared. And bored! Wouldn't you if you watched nothing but television?"
Nikki's mother, Shay Elterman, 35, doesn't like the situation but said, "That's how it is."
Elterman tried to enroll Nikki in day-care programs and was told each time, "Sorry, she's too old." She feels that latchkey parents are anything but apathetic--they just don't have "reasonable alternatives."
"That's how it is" is a main refrain of parents who try to explain the rising numbers of latchkey children, not just in San Diego County but throughout the country.
Scores of mental-health professionals seem to be saying, "Yes, but it shouldn't be that way," while school officials cite the apathy that they say permeates every level of society in regard to the problem that won't go away:
Jean Brunkow is executive director of the YMCA Child Care Resource Service in San Diego. She sees an apathy even in the compilation of figures on the numbers of latchkey children. The San Diego Unified School District officially lists more than 18,000 among its 115,484 students, or 15.6%. Brunkow said the number is "much, much higher."
Based on figures from Sacramento, Brunkow said 18% to 23% of California's schoolchildren fit the latchkey category. The Senate Office of Research lists the current statewide estimate at somewhere between 620,000 and 815,000 children.
57,000 to 61,000 Figured
"On an average, that would translate to somewhere between 57,000 and 61,000 for San Diego, which is probably much closer to the mark," Brunkow said.
It isn't just the numbers that concern Brunkow but the attitude of parents--and educators--to the growing harshness of the problem.
"These are lonely children," Brunkow said. "They don't have adults who can give them the companionship, the guidance, the caring that children need. They have to create their own environment at a time when information and resources--love--is desperately needed.
"To have a child come home and lock themselves in the house can be a frightening experience. Watching hours of TV is not an optimum environment for the development of healthy children. The safety issue is basic. Are these children safe? Who's helping them?"
Dr. Gerald E. Nelson is a child psychiatrist in Del Mar and no fan of the latchkey solution.
"If an organism is stressed for a long period of time, there's a physical response," Nelson said. "It's like a soldier in Vietnam--sooner or later, the body prepares for fight or flight. What happens ultimately is that the body burns out--it can no longer respond to stress. One way it responds is by numbing out, burning out, losing its stamina.
Stress Turns Off Little Bodies
"Little mammals, such as latchkey kids, have far less endurance (than adults). They can't tolerate prolonged stress and numb out much more quickly. Their bodies turn off, and they just stop feeling in response to stress.
"All latchkey kids are scared when alone, especially in the dark. When numbing-out occurs, they become insensitive to the feelings of others. They just don't care anymore. When Mom comes home and says, 'Pick up your room,' the kid has lost all receptiveness. There's difficulty at school; they have trouble listening to the teacher. Prolonged stress interferes with learning."