WASHINGTON — Dad works, and so does Mom. Their children come home from school to an empty house, where they make merry, fool around or otherwise get in trouble.
Since there's no one around to make the children do their homework, their grades suffer. Other possible problems are graver: teen-age pregnancy, car accidents, drinking and drug use.
That's the popular stereotype of the miserable fate that befalls latchkey children--the estimated 2 million youths between 7 and 13 who are routinely without adult supervision for part of the day.
Recent research, however, says that being home alone may not be all that bad. The issue, in any case, is too complex to judge on approval-disapproval terms, experts say.
"Before I did my study, I would have assumed that going home in a latchkey situation would be automatically bad," said Deborah Vandell, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas. "But at least in the short term, that doesn't appear to be the case."
Vandell evaluated the after-school plans of 349 suburban Dallas third-graders. These 8- and 9-year-old children had four different arrangements: going home to a parent, to a sitter, to an after-school program (primarily for-profit day-care centers) or home either alone or with an older sibling.
"One of the biggest surprises was the sheer number of latchkey kids," Vandell said. "While nearly half--48%--went home to mother, 25% were in a latchkey situation."
One of the most thorough surveys of child-care needs in the Washington area came up with a similar percentage. Conducted by Applied Management Sciences, a social policy research firm, the survey of Montgomery County, Md., households with children younger than 14 said 21% of these families regularly allowed their children to care for themselves or to be cared for by an under-14 sibling.
In households where both adults worked full time, the latchkey figure was 42%. More than a quarter of the children were 8 or younger. Although these numbers are now three years old, "I would think these figures would have gone up, because the number of working moms is increasing," said JoAnn Kuchak, a vice president at Applied.
Vandell used a variety of measures to construct her child-care profiles. Parents were asked not only how their children got along with them and their siblings and in school, but also their work and study skills and the amount of responsibility they had.
The children's teachers were asked these same questions, and the children also evaluated their peers in terms of whom they liked and didn't like to play with. In addition, the children were asked how they thought they were doing socially, academically and in general. Finally, standardized test scores and report-card grades were used.
The study's conclusion: There were no differences in the parents', the peers' or the children's own ratings between those who went home to mother and those in latchkey situations. Nor was there any difference in test scores between the two groups. Being a latchkey child did not appear to have hurt these third-graders.
"We did find a difference in those children who were going to the day-care centers," Vandell said. "They were rated more negatively by their teachers and parents, and more of their classmates said they didn't like to play with them. The only area they didn't seem to be doing poorly in was their view of themselves."
A further wrinkle came when separate analyses were done on two- and single-parent families that were using a sitter.
Going to a sitter in single-parent households was as bad as going to day care, Vandell said. "But in an intact family, it was like going home alone or to Mom." She's not sure why, but "it may be a function of money. A two-parent family with more money can get a better sitter."
One possible reason for the surprising results in Dallas is that the after-school programs in the study were not of high quality and were spurned by the children.
"Those children who complain about going, and whose parents think are doing OK, start going home instead," Vandell said. "There's some self-selection here. The kids who seem to be doing fine go home, while the ones in trouble stay in the programs."
Tom Long, a professor of education at Catholic University in Washington, agrees that children in less academically grounded child-care centers seem not to do as well.
"The center's assumption is, 'The kids have been in school, and we do other stuff.' But if the kids spend much time there, the parents assume they did their homework," he said. Control, Long said, is much greater if a parent is present or if there is a latchkey situation, where the parents often watch from afar.
The value of supervision was confirmed in a recent study of 865 Madison, Wis., children between the ages of 10 and 16.