How many kids are home alone?

Anna Quindlen

January 13, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

IT WAS a free ride for the headline writers. Take one sure-fir human interest story of parental abandonment and one hit movie, and the words almost wrote themselves: Home Alone.

Overnight David and Sharon Schoo, who went to Acapulco and allegedly left their two little girls to fend for themselves, were billed as "the most hated couple in America."

When they were arrested at the airport and led away in handcuffs, one bystander hissed "Scrooge!" And across America parents asked aloud: How could anyone leave a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old by themselves and go off on vacation like that?

But there were other voices, too, and they are the ones that bear hearing. A delivery man called a radio station in Pennsylvania to say he habitually delivered packages to households in which small children were home by themselves.

Police in Texas discovered an 8-year-old in a hotel room on Christmas Day. He had apparently been left there for two days by his father, alone with a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of bread and a box of cereal.

And a teacher in New York City reported that she once taught sisters whose mother worked a night shift and who, she suspected, were left alone all night long, locked in the apartment for their own well-being. She said she believed there were many such stories in her school. "These are not bad mothers," she said. "They're trying to support their kids."

Whatever the reason, America is a country in which, child welfare advocates have been warning for years, many children are home alone. It may not be for nine days, which is how long the Schoos were gone. But it might be every afternoon from 3 p.m. to nightfall.

The estimates vary, but what we do know is that childhood has changed since many of us were children.

Ten years ago Marie Winn, in "Children Without Childhood," posited the end of an Age of Protection and the beginning of the Age of Preparation. "The new era," she wrote, "operates on the belief that children must be exposed early to adult experience in order to survive in an increasingly complex and uncontrollable world."

As parents are home less and children know more -- about sex, about drugs, about how to run the microwave -- the lines between child and adult blur. It even shows in our clothes; once mothers wore hose and heels and their little girls wore anklets and Mary Janes. Today it is different: 4-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 40-year-olds -- the Gap dresses us all alike.

In this atmosphere treating kids as quasi-adults becomes easier earlier. And it makes life easier for working parents; we are naturally more comfortable, at our desks, on the night shift, with the idea of the competent child rather than the dependent and vulnerable one.

When we think of the dangers of children home alone, we think of the physical: the fires, the accidents. But what stays with me from the Schoo episode is what the elder girl said afterward, when she and her sister had run next-door after a smoke alarm went off. She said that she had been lonely.

People were shocked that such a thing could have happened in a prosperous neighborhood. But in her book on America's children, "When the Bough Breaks," the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett cited a California study of 5,000 eighth graders that concluded it was the affluent children who spent the largest amount of time on their own, apparently because their parents' careers were so time-consuming.

The traditional school schedule is not set up for today's world; more after-school and summer programs would provide at least a safe haven for many children. Nor are traditional work schedules conducive to family life.

But ultimately the issue of how we treat our children is more complex than matters of education and economics. It goes to the question of how much childhood we are willing -- and able -- to allow them.

We should not confuse the toughness and savvy we impose out of our own need with real maturity.

What the Schoos are accused of doing is an aberration and an outrage, but they did it in an atmosphere that openly treats young children as quasi-adults.

Perhaps, more often than any of us realize, many of America's kids are home alone -- and lonely.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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