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Caught in the Middle

Lack of After-School Programs Gives Preteens an Edge Over Parents, Researchers Say

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
Posted January 12, 2000

With few or no full-scale after-school programs in place for children aged 10 to 12, working parents are losing a battle of wills with their kids who want to be free of adult supervision, according to research carried out at Berkeley's Center for Working Families.

These families are being "dropped off a cliff" in terms of after-school care, once their children are out of elementary school where care programs were routinely in place until the end of the working day, said Rivka Polatnick, a research sociologist at the center.

"We are playing with fire," said Polatnick. "We know that the period of preteen into early adolescence is a very vulnerable age and a critical time in development. These children are being left essentially unsupervised."

Polatnick's research, to be released by the center this month, is based on interviews with 36 preteens in a Bay Area middle school and their parents. It is one of a few studies conducted in the United States to collect in-depth material on how preteens feel and what choices they are making when they get to middle school. These case studies add insight to national statistics showing that more than one third of U.S. children aged 10 to 12 with working parents are regularly taking care of themselves.

In one of the case studies, for example, 11-year-old Reggie, who would like to be without adult supervision, thinks it's against the law for him to stay home alone. His working parents concocted a story that he must be 13 before he can be legally left alone, a kind of last-ditch effort to limit the sudden freedom that came to this middle school child when he graduated from elementary school.

Brian's parents, on the other hand, caved in when the 10-year-old decided to walk home with a friend to spend the afternoons at the computer, unsupervised, rather than staying at school running errands for the teacher.

"There is a tug of war going on between the kids, who typically want to exercise their new autonomy, and the parents, who usually feel their preteens are too young to be on their own regularly after school," said Polatnick.

"For the most part, kids are happy to use this situation to their advantage," she said. "But some will admit that the lack of care makes them lonely and bored, and others will deliberately get school detention to have something to do."

Schools are contributing to the problem -- often inadvertently -- by communicating mainly with the kids and not with the parents about the limited after-school activities, mainly sports, that are available, said Polatnick. She found that children who had their own agenda about how to spend the time would simply forget to pass on school notices and parents never knew what, if anything, the school offered.

One parent was reduced to going through her daughter's backpack looking for information on after-school programs, said Polatnick.

"Ten or eleven is pretty young to be treated as suddenly grown up," said Polatnick. "And the parents are shocked when they find out that there are few after-school programs in middle school, nor even any bus transportation to and from the school."

School administrators neglect to communicate with parents, either because they lack the resources for mailings or because the culture in middle school encourages them to treat the children as decision makers, said Polatnick. She believes, however, that the major cause is lack of staff, or even the money for postage.

"It is a sorry state of affairs when our schools are so underfunded and understaffed that they can't even mail out notices and must get parent volunteers to do the mailings," said Polatnick.

"Middle school administrators have been told often enough that their communication to parents is bad. They are aware of that, and still the problem does not change. I think the cause is inadequate school budgets."

Polatnick's results draw on 78 in-depth interviews, conducted with Elaine Bell Kaplan, also a senior researcher at the center, with 36 6th and 7th graders in the Bay Area and 42 of their parents. Her report touches on common issues for millions of parents and kids, since national statistics indicate that, at age 12, some 35 percent of kids with working parents take care of themselves regularly after school.

"Actually, 35 percent may underestimate the problem," said Polatnick, "since most parents, particularly mothers, do not want to admit their 10- to 12-year-olds are staying home alone."

She added, however, that the term "home alone" includes a wide range of situations, from kids who are truly alone to those who have relatives or friends in the building.

"This is an area of ambivalence for our culture and our parents," she said. "On the one hand, we think it's positive for kids to learn self-reliance. These are values we celebrate and promote. Yet we also know our kids as individuals, know their needs and the kind of care we would like them to have.

"Most parents are very uneasy with this much freedom at the preteen level. It doesn't feel right. They want better options and many more after-school resources for these kids."



January 12 - 18, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 17)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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