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Planning a Better Life for Latchkey Kids

November 17, 1987|JOAN LIBMAN

Marika Evans listens to her daughter, Debbie, 10, practicing the clarinet in the next room and smiles with relief. Evans, a teacher, has studied child development and knows that the youngster is doing well. The sixth-grader at Culver City middle school is in the accelerated math program, plays in the band, has a wide circle of friends and is a member of the YMCA swim team.

Although Debbie has devoted, loving parents, she has benefited from an advantage not available to many American children: after-school supervision.

Empty Houses

There was a time when most kids came home to Mom, who orchestrated play, homework and piano lessons. Today, with more parents in the work force, increasing numbers of children are alone after school. Although figures vary, Helen Blank of the Children's Defense Fund estimates that about 5 million so-called latchkey children return to empty houses.

Remarkably, hours spent away from school comprise 80% of a child's waking time.

"This time is one of the most precious commodities in a child's life," says Joan Bergstrom, chairwoman of the department of professional studies in early childhood at Wheelock College in Boston. Bergstrom, author of "School's Out--Now What?" (Ten Speed Press: $10.95), a parents' guide to after-school activities, views time as a great equalizer.

"Children don't have identical advantages in health, education, housing, money, social experience or access to the world. But all kids have the same amount of time to be 8 years old. What children do with that time makes them different from one another. A child who is helped to make productive use of time has received one of the greatest advantages parents can bestow," she adds.

Although much has been written about the first five years of life, the stage from 6 to 12 has received little popular attention. Yet it is during the relative calm of middle childhood, experts say, that children are eager to learn and receptive to parental influence.

Preparing for Life

Moreover, children should be gaining the foundation of social and academic skills that prepare them for life.

"Children (in middle childhood) want to be 'good' at something. After school they need a balance of rest and relaxation, meaningful activity, access to adults and contact with peers," says Irene Goldenberg, director of psychological services at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "By achieving and relating to other children and adults, kids develop a sense of self. It's hard to accomplish these (developmental) tasks when a child is in front of a TV set for long periods of time," she adds.

Others point out that children who are alone are overburdened.

"It's too much emotional responsibility. We're expecting children to comfort themselves, organize their time and handle emergencies. And there is the risk of danger," says psychiatrist Doris Soghor, acting deputy director of the children and youth services bureau of Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Bergstrom doesn't think all parents should quit their jobs and frantically herd children from one costly, enriching program to another. Rather, depending on a child's temperament and interests, she advocates three to six hours of weekly activity designed to help children develop skills and gain independence.

The Other Three Rs

"These years are when parents need to develop, in small increments, the other three Rs--resourcefulness, responsibility and reliability. By the time children are teen-agers, parents don't have the same opportunity to teach these things," Bergstrom says. Included in a child's weekly routine, for example, might be tasks such as caring for a pet, sweeping the floor, supervising a younger child for 30 minutes or walking to the corner store to purchase art supplies.

Historically, some parents have gone to great lengths to encourage a child's burning interest. Bergstrom cites the case of opera star Leontyne Price, whose family didn't have $2 a week for a voice coach. In exchange for the lessons, the singer's mother took in the teacher's washing and ironing. When it became necessary to buy a piano, her mother gave up the family Victrola as a down payment.

More often, parents resort to ingenuity, rather than heroics. One family hired a high school student to come two afternoons a week to teach younger children basketball. A family with a daughter who loved to cook arranged to have her spend a few hours a week in the kitchen of a local caterer. The experience inspired the child to start a small baking business. Parents with children enrolled at one Jewish community center day-care program hired specialists in gymnastics, drama and music to come on site, eliminating extra trips to lessons.

Often, combining forces reduces cost. When Debbie Evans was 7, she was cared for after school by a private day-care firm that delivered her home at 5 p.m. Although the arrangement was satisfactory, the $300 monthly fee was steep for her teacher mother.

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