elementary-aged children are not fully ready to take care of
themselves, working parents have to arrange before- and afterschool
care. The alternative—having a child spend mornings and afternoons
alone—is neither safe nor appropriate. Most parents recognize that
six- or seven-year-olds should not be left on their own, but many
parents consistently leave eight- and nine-year-olds to care for
themselves. Some of these children even supervise younger siblings.
Parents who leave young children alone spend much of their working
time worrying, and with good cause. Eight- and nine-year-olds have
trouble remembering and following rules. They may open the door to
strangers, go outside, use the stove, look at inappropriate TV shows
or websites, or have a friend over against their parents’ wishes.
Kids this age are not equipped to handle emergencies, including ones
involving younger siblings.
In addition to physical supervision, children need emotional
support, which they can’t get when they’re alone. Before school, a
child needs a caregiver to offer a good breakfast and a cheerful,
“Rave a good day at school. Hope your science project is a success.”
After school, he needs to talk, have a snack, hear someone say, “How
was your day? Did you work things out with your friend? Do you need
help with your homework?”
The caregiver can be a relative, neighbor, teenage sitter, or day
care center worker. Many public schools lease space for independent
day care operations. Since the programs are convenient and
presumably screened by the school administration, parents often sign
their children up for this before- and after-school care.
Private schools also may provide care, operated according to the
school’s standards and values. The school’s administrator usually
has responsibility for the program. Since the quality of the day
care reflects upon the school, private schools sometimes show a
particularly strong commitment to providing good programs.
A problem with all day care, whether in an institutional setting or
a private home, is finding educated staff to work with early
elementary-aged children from 7:00 to 9:00 in the morning and 3:00
to 6:00 in the evening. Child care workers are notoriously underpaid
and receive few benefits. Qualified caretakers are hard to find and
day care administrators must spend considerable time training
inexperienced staff and coping with frequent turnover.
Before settling on any type of arrangement, get recommendations from
people you trust. If you hire a sitter for your home, check her
references carefully. Determine how responsible a neighborhood
teenager is before allowing her to stay regularly with your child.
Whether your child is being cared for in a day care program, a
private home, or your own home, pay attention to the kind of care
he’s receiving. Don’t feel complacent if he’s enrolled in a public
or private school program. Although all such programs should be
carefully screened and supervised, they often aren’t.
To reassure yourself and help your child, evaluate the quality of
his day care. For a morning program outside your home, find out what
kinds of activities are offered. Can your child bring his own toys
or projects? Can he finish his homework before school? Is breakfast
or a snack served? Is the atmosphere friendly? If a sitter comes to
your home in the morning, is she pleasant while helping your child
get ready? Your child’s school day will be influenced by the start
he gets each morning.
Learn about the after-school program. Is a snack provided? Are there
active and quiet activities? Indoors and out? Can he go to an
organized sport or activity in the school building or elsewhere? Is
there a quiet place to do homework? ‘What is the staff/child ratio?
Is the staff warm and helpful? Can you use the center on a drop-in
basis? If he spends the afternoon with a sitter, is he well
supervised? Does he watch too much TV or spend too much time on the
You can tell a lot about the quality of care by talking to and
observing your child. He may complain about his baby-sitter or his
day care program, especially if he sees other children going home
from school each day. Yet, he may be happy when you see him in the
evening, and he may talk excitedly about the activities and kids
he’s been involved with. If you’re pleased with the sitter or
program and your child seems content, you can feel confident he is
well taken care of. If you aren’t pleased, talk to your caregiver
and ask for and offer solutions. Eventually you may consider seeking
alternative arrangements, rearranging your own schedule, or cutting
back on your work hours to better meet your child’s needs.