A.W. Nichols & R. Schilit. (1988, January/February). “Telephone support for latchkey children.” Child Welfare, 67(1), 49-59.
A seven-year-old boy comes home having received a star on his spelling paper. He is eager to tell someone, but no one is at home. What does he do?
A young girl visits her friend instead of going home after school. At 6:00 p.m. she becomes frightened because her mother does not know where she is. She cannot reach her mother who has apparently left work but not gone directly home. What does she do?
These and similar situations and their resolutions are the subject of this article. In 1984, between 6 and 10 million children were caring for themselves after school. In urban settings, self-care is the prevalent form of child care following parent care. Fifteen to 30% of urban kids are in self-care before and after school. Although there may be some benefits to self-care for older children, most professionals consider this a social problem with many inherent risks. Often, parents of self-care kids respond to the problem by imposing severe restrictions on the children to minimize the hazards. But restrictions limit the opportunities for socialization and interaction. Finances prohibit many families from taking advantage of other child care options.
Some communities have begun “warm lines.” Tucson, Arizona’s program called “Kidline” is a telephone program designed to provide a point of contact for children needing information, assistance, or support. Volunteers answer the phone during the hours that children are most likely to be home alone. The “Kidline” program, initially grant-funded, now receives funding from United Way and other private donations. The program’s objectives are:
- To enable actually or potentially abused, dependent, or delinquent children to mature in as healthy and normal a manner as possible.
- To provide telephone help-line services to children ages 6 to 17, especially (but not limited) to those whose parents are unavailable either on an emergency or on-going basis.
- At all times, to provide an interested, intelligent, listening ear and when appropriate.
- To teach children home safety and instruct on 911 usage.
- To use supportive listening skills.
- To provide guidance for homework problems, accidents, illness, etc.
Word of the program’s availability spreads through school assemblies, fairs, television public service announcements, school counselors, social workers, and police programs. “Kidline” receives over 1,500 calls per month.
The calls received from 7-16 year olds at “Kidline” from January to March 1986 were analyzed by group, sex, and category to see if hypotheses concerning who was calling about what were correct. Results showed:
- Sixty-five percent of all calls were from girls.
- Thirty-two percent were from boys.
- Eighty-one percent were from children ages 7-11.
- Nineteen percent were from adolescents ages 12-16.
The majority of all calls were basic conversational calls. The next largest category was children seeking guidance; adolescents sought conflict resolution. Adolescent boys made more calls concerning support, guidance, counsel, fear, and anxiety than girls; adolescent girls called more often about conflict and safety and for referrals. Children made more conversation and guidance calls than adolescents; adolescents made more safety and conflict calls than did children. All age groups made the same percentage of fear and anxiety calls.
From this analysis we see that kids make calls for interaction, support, and problem solving. The fact that more girls than boys called, and assuming that kids home alone are equally vulnerable to interpersonal conflicts, accidents, illness, and disruptive situations, one can presume that boys try to handle these problems without assistance or at least in some way other than through “Kidline.” Keeping in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (i.e., survival needs are most basic, followed by safety and security, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization) one sees that the telephone line responds to needs at the second through fourth levels. During the formative childhood years, it is critical to ensure that basic needs for security and development are met.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Did any of the findings in this study surprise you?
- Which of these findings did you expect?
- What implications can one draw from the fact that more girls than boys called? Does this show that boys have a more secure sense of self-identity?
- What are some other ways the needs pointed out in this study may be met?
- It appears, based on this study, that it is important for children left home alone to have communication access to an adult. If a child is able to check in with his or her parent by phone upon reaching home and can make contact when necessary, some of the child’s needs will be met. “Parents who are able to make personal calls from work are advised to schedule daily telephone contact with their children.”
- Youth workers can help fulfill some of the needs kids might have that were recognized in this study.
- Relationships are very valuable for kids in latchkey situations. Those who work with kids can make themselves available to kids during these times so that they will grow through their adolescent years feeling both cared and supported.
Delinda Higgins and Anne Montague
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