The Home Alone movies have been so popular that there are now 4 in the series starring Macaulay Culkin as a highly inventive 8-year-old who constantly gets into mischief when he is accidentally left behind as his parents race off on an international vacation. The implausible and predictable plot of the original movie where the boy sleds down the stairs, cruises down the supermarket aisles and sets up booby-traps to catch burglars was designed to appeal to pre-teens and they find it hilarious. But, the movie character’s antics have little resemblance to the situation described in a research brief just released from Child Trends titled, “Left Unsupervised: A Look at the Most Vulnerable Children.” Four Child Trends’ researchers report the results of their study of children left alone in “self care.” The Child Trends’ brief finds that children under 13 who are left to their own devices tend to watch television and play video games, and in general, let their minds vegetate and, without sufficient physical activity to burn off excessive snack food calories, their conditioning deteriorates as well. Day after day, alone in an empty house, they also experience isolation and loneliness.
The study found that, in addition, children left alone are “at increased risk for accidents and injuries, for social and behavioral problems, and for academic achievement and school adjustment problems.” They add that children alone pose safety risks; the study specifically draws attention to the possibility of children playing with matches. While this study focuses on younger children, the researchers point out that these types of problems are associated with adolescents being left alone, too. Delinquent behaviors such as cigarette, alcohol, and drug use are common among unsupervised teens, as are other risky behaviors.
The Child Trends’ report is based on the researchers’ analysis of the 1999 National Survey of America’s Families, a survey of more than 42,000 households, and analysis by Child Trends of an additional 10,000 children between the ages of 6 and 12. One of the most surprising results of the study is that higher-income children are more likely to be home alone than are lower-income children. Obviously, the study found that children in families where both parents are employed full-time or when a single parent is employed full-time are more likely to spend time unsupervised. Nevertheless, the finding that higher-income children are more often left unsupervised holds true even when adjusted for parental employment status.
The proffered solution to the “self-care” problem of children being left unsupervised is as predictable as the movie plots affordable [read government subsidized] supervised-childcare options. Though, remember that the study found that low-income families are LESS likely to leave their children unsupervised.
Since the study emphasized the fact that parents with poor mental health (read “dysfunctional parents?”) are more likely to leave their children unattended, the authors also offered another “affordable” solution what they called a “two-generational” approach; that is, a tandem program that would provide mental health counseling for the parents while it provided supervised care for their children. It is hard to believe that such a Utopian suggestion one that seems both impractical and unreasonably expensive would meet the counseling and accountability needs of dysfunctional parents while simultaneously providing for the daily supervisory needs of their children.
The 1999 study reports that nationwide, over 3 million children, ages 6-12, “regularly spend time unsupervised or in the care of a young sibling.” These figures are based on parental reports and are considered to be conservative estimates. In terms of the number of hours alone, it averages “just under four-and-a-half hours per week” which would be less than an hour a day during the workweek. Many of these same children, however, ALSO spend time with adult supervision other than their parents 41.5% are regularly in other childcare arrangements, too. The study also found that often, there was an unavailable or only occasionally available teenaged sibling in the family. Older siblings are classified “relative care” when they are available to care for the family’s younger children.
That is the good news. The bad news is that more than one in ten of the unsupervised children in each of these vulnerable groups spent ten or more hours a week in self care that is 11.3% of those aged 6-9 and 13.2% of the low-income children.
So, while the movie version of Home Alone has plenty of laughs, there’s not much hilarity in the lonely reality of latchkey kids left to fend for themselves after school every afternoon.
The study’s complete findings, along with implications for policy and research, are presented in “Left Unsupervised: A Look at the Most Vulnerable Children,” available at: www.childtrends.org/PDF/UnsupervisedRB.pdf