The 'Home Alone' generation

April 16, 1993

Every generation is a reflection of the times and circumstances that shaped it. As the largest demographic bulge since the Baby Boomers works its way toward the teen years, its effects on contemporary American life are being felt. Drug use is up among younger teens, and from many schools come reports of young people who are more violent and less respectful of authority, less tuned in to adults and more hip to survival strategies for mean streets or empty houses where they spend many hours alone. Some people refer to today's youngsters as the "Home Alone" generation.

The term is apt. More children are growing up in single-parent households or in homes where both parents have outside employment. At the same time, fewer families live near their relatives and many neighborhoods are not the child-friendly places they were once perceived to be.

As a result, more children end up spending more time at home unsupervised by adults. In one survey of 46,800 students, the majority of them white Midwesterners, almost half of all sixth graders said that on school days they spend an average of two or more hours at home without an adult. For ninth and 12th graders, the number rose to 60 percent. Many of those youngsters are simply home alone, probably lonely and perhaps even scared. In such cases, television, which is often blamed for making youngsters lethargic and even apathetic, is not so much entertainment as companionship.

Large numbers of young people are expected to take care of their younger siblings. A recent story about declining participation in school sports reported that many high school students were unable to stay after classes to play basketball or join the track team because they were either working to earn spending money or heading home to assume family responsibilities. The trend held true for both boys and girls.

Childhood was never as carefree as '50s visions of the Cleaver household, but growing up now has more than a fair share of dangers and difficulties. As reported in The Evening Sun this week, by the end of the decade the nation will see a 13 percent increase in the number of 13- to 19-year-olds, or 3.2 million more than in 1990. That projection represents a challenge in everything from school policies to juvenile services programs.

Schools have not yet adapted to the realities of family life in 1993, or they would have long since expanded their hours or routinely provided after-school activities.

"Home Alone" may be an entertaining movie. As real life, it is a sad commentary on any society.

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