By Mike Lee, Knight Ridder News Service
and Shauna Scott Rhone, The Cincinnati Enquirer
A recent study of child-care arrangements found that 19 percent of schoolchildren spend at least part of each week looking after themselves. For children whose mothers work, the rate rises to 23 percent.
Shari Kelly-Burrows of Clermont County's Union Township calls it "parenting by phone." She says the convenience of cell phones for the family has proved invaluable as "the working parent's connection to home."
"My daughter, a fourth-grader, has a very set routine that she follows if she arrives home and I'm not there yet. This includes letting the dog out, relocking the back door, making sure that the garage door is closed and then calling either her Dad or me by phone. If I'm already in the car, I usually talk to her the entire time I'm driving home."
Other families rely on a patchwork of grandparents, relatives, friends, day-care centers and after-school activities.
The situation is not likely to improve anytime soon. Service-industry jobs, with lower pay and less predictable hours, are becoming more prevalent. And the number of two-career couples and single-parent families is increasing. The 2000 Census revealed that in 51 percent of two-parent families with children, both parents work outside the home.
"Parents need to be more creative with their child-care arrangements," said Kristin Smith, a researcher with the U.S. Census Bureau and author of Who's Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 1997.
Her study surveyed 36,000 households nationwide.
It found that working mothers with children younger than 5 used several different child-care arrangements: fathers (30.5 percent); grandparents (29.6 percent); child-care centers (18.9 percent); other relatives (14.8 percent); nursery schools (7 percent) and Head Start programs (4.2 percent). The results weren't broken down by state.
About 30 percent of those children spent time in more than one kind of arrangement.
The trend continued among school-age children. About 19 percent of those ages 5 to 14 were cared for by grandparents during the week, and 25 percent were in multiple arrangements that could include school, day care, other relatives or enrichment activities, such as music lessons.
The study found that the percentage of children caring for themselves increased with age - from about 1 percent of 5-year-olds to 47 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds. Not surprisingly, children with working parents spent the most time alone.
About 30 percent were alone for at least 10 hours a week.
Independence resident Deby Weik's son is a junior at Simon Kenton High School. He calls his mom when he gets home from school at 3, "so I know that he will be there when my daughter, a third-grader at Kenton Elementary, gets in at 4," says Mrs. Weik. "They have chores they complete and I'm usually home by 5:30 ... so far, it's working out great!"
When having children "home alone" is not an option, parents have to scramble to find adequate before- or after-school care. Affordability can be an obstacle too. Child care, the federal study found, is expensive, averaging $71 a week.
Schools can help
For children in elementary school, sometimes school districts can provide the attentive support for working parents. Julie Levis of Mariemont has a daughter who is a kindergartener at Mariemont Elementary. The school offers an "extended time program" of before- and after-school activities.
"To keep up with what she does on a daily basis," says Ms. Levis, "they provide a monthly calendar. They also have folders with the children's names on them for daily projects. They cook, take field trips or walk to the local library on nice days. If I want to check on Kris (her daughter) for any reason, all I do is call. Never an answering machine, just friendly teachers to talk to. That takes a lot of the guilt out of being a working mother."
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