How to Reach Home-Alone Kids
group magazine: March, 1992
From: March 1992 GROUP Magazine
Keywords: Outreach Latchkey Kids
How to Reach Home-Alone Kids
There are more than 10 million latchkey kids in the United States. And they need what you've got.
BY BUDDY SCOTT
Eavesdrop on one of my recent counseling sessions with a 14-year-old girl whose parents both work:
"I had sex with Chris at Sanya's. Her mom's single and has to work, and her live-in's never home after school. Sanya did it with Chris a week after I did, and I got really mad. She didn't need to mess with my boyfriend-she's already fooling around with Juan! She told me she was drinking, and it just happened. Like that's an excuse!"
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Every day after school, this junior higher does what she wants, when she wants, where she wants. She's one of an estimated 10 million latchkey kids in the United States.
Latchkey kids are after-school nomads, wandering from home to home, mall to mall and street to street. Most of them are not home alone-I know because these kids tell me what they really do after school.
Twelve-year-old Chenelle's parents sent her to me after the police caught her shoplifting at a mall after school. "Everybody goes straight to the mall after school," she told me. "And all my friends shoplift! I just got caught! It's not fair! Why do I have to go to counseling?"
Thirteen-year-old Matt's parents would be shocked if they knew why he loved his after-school babysitting job so much. "I babysit this kid after school 'cause his parents work like mine," Matt told me. "They have X-rated videos. So my friends come over, and we watch them together. Adults do some really gross things together."
I could give example after example of the shocking things latchkey kids do after school. In fact, someone recently asked one of my counseling associates if she watched soap operas. "No, I don't watch them," she promptly replied. "I counsel them!"
Sheep Without Shepherds
The "latchkey" label originated in England, where children who go home to empty houses after school wear their latchkeys (house keys) as necklaces.
According to child development researcher Hyman Rodman, 96 percent of 13-year-olds who have a working mom go home to an empty house after school. Seventy-six percent of 12-year-olds and 82 percent of 11-year-olds share the same fate.
Economic pressures, the desire for an upscale lifestyle and the breakdown of the nuclear family have separated parents from their children. The result is that millions of sheep are without shepherds for three to five hours each day.
And often these latchkey kids are hanging out with an electronic "wrong crowd." Through television (network and cable), videos, compact discs, cassette tapes and radio, kids spend time with adults they'd never be allowed to meet with in person.
Teenage girls often tell me that the first thing they do after school is watch the soap operas their mothers recorded for them during the day. "A lot of what I've learned about sex, I've learned from the soaps," says one 14-year-old girl quoted in Family Circle magazine.
And I recently visited three junior high classrooms and asked the kids how many of them watched music videos after school. Over half tune in to shows that offer a regular diet of sexually suggestive, profane and graphically violent videos.
Parents are so preoccupied that they haven't noticed there are wolves in shepherds' clothing stalking their kids through the media. That's why kids need a fun, thought-provoking and Christian safe haven for after-school activities.
Why "Home Alone" Kids May Be Better Off
As a counselor who's talked to countless latchkey kids, I know a lot of them are better off alone than with their parents. Why? It's better for the sheep to wander alone than to suffer at the hands of a dangerous, abusive shepherd.
The fact is that millions of American teenagers fear the sound of their parents' cars pulling into their driveways.
A teacher at a junior high school near my office asked an eighth-grade girl why her grades had been falling. The girl responded, "If you'll let me answer your question tomorrow, I'll bring you something and show you."
The teacher, intrigued, agreed to wait.
The next day the girl walked in and laid a cassette player on her teacher's desk. She pushed "play" and stared at the machine with tears forming in her eyes. The teacher heard what sounded like a full-scale war. There were screaming, cursing, things crashing. The girl had recorded her home life. She pushed "stop," looked up at her teacher and asked, "Could you concentrate in my home?"
Sadly, this young girl's experience is all too common:
*Children are abused in one out of 10 homes, and there's spouse abuse in one out of seven homes, according to researchers at the Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire.
*Half of the two million kids who run away each year do so because they've been abused.
*Some researchers estimate that as many as 5,000 kids die annually as a result of child abuse.
*One in four girls and one in 10 boys under 18 will be involved in a forced sexual experience with an adult, according to the American Association for Protecting Children.
*Teenagers are twice as likely as adults to be the victims of violent crimes. Most often, they're attacked by casual friends or relatives, according to a Justice Department study.
*Girls 10 to 13 are most likely to be sexually abused, and often the abuse occurs in the victim's home, in her own bed.
*One-quarter of American families suffer from alcohol- or drug-related problems, according to Barbara Yoder in The Recovery Resource Book.
*Parents exhausted from work often lack the emotional reserves to keep their anger from exploding into violent rage. According to Richard Louv, author of Childhood's Future, "Children and adults pass each other in the night at ever-accelerating speeds."
These facts back up what I know from personal experience: Some kids are safer on their own. But that's still not an attractive option. Your youth program can be a positive alternative for these kids.
Crafting an After-School Program That Works
Latchkey kids need to connect with an adult caregiver who teaches and models Christian values. They need attention and supervision. They need a recess from alcoholism, drug addiction, spouse abuse and child abuse. They need companionship with adults who aren't exhausted or preoccupied. They need counseling on how to survive dysfunctional families.
Kids who aren't hurting need positive reinforcement for maintaining their balance. And all kids need to learn practical life skills.
But what kids need isn't always what they want.
In preparing to write this article, I surveyed 404 seventh- and eighth-graders at a local junior high school. I asked them what they'd include in an after-school program. Most said what you'd expect: food, folks and fun. But some were more thoughtful:
*Twenty-nine said they'd include individual and group counseling.
*Nineteen wanted vocational or life-skill training.
*Seventeen recommended Bible studies and other church-related activities.
*Eight wanted help with their homework.
*Six wanted the program to include service projects.
You can't compete with the high-tech attractions of the media and the mall. But you can care, listen, interpret, understand, forgive, encourage, affirm, guide and embrace. The tube, the headset and the "30% Off!" sale sign can't provide the personal attention your young people consciously or subconsciously crave.
So craft your after-school program to include a little of what kids want and a little of what they need:
1. Recruit stable, dependable, relational adult leaders. The kids' affection for your adult volunteers will be the magnet that keeps them coming back for more.
2. Begin the program with an enthusiastic, individualized welcome (15 minutes). Ask your most enthusiastic volunteers to stand by your meeting room door and greet kids individually as they come in. Train volunteers to look for ways to give each young person a "three-second affirmation." For example: "We're so happy you came!" or "I'm looking forward to a fun afternoon with you!"
Welcome hungry kids with a tasty but sugarless snack such as raisins. Give them time to brief one another on the events of the day while they eat.
3. Take time for high-energy recreation (40 minutes). Recreation should be fun, unique and exciting. Physical exercise should be included to work off the stresses of the day and the worries of the evening. Find a place-outside or inside-that's big enough and safe enough for kids to run around in. Then plan at least two high-energy games that are competitive yet involve everyone.
For ideas, try Group's new book, Have-a-Blast Games for Youth Groups.
4. Move into creative Bible study (20 minutes). Plan a short, creative Bible study that challenges kids to convert their self-centered attitudes into Christ-centered attitudes; their self-serving actions into God-serving actions; their positive behavior based on fear of punishment into positive behavior based on integrity.
Use a Bible study guide such as the youth edition of The Search for Significance by Robert McGee. This workbook helps kids discover their identity and develop their self-esteem. Or use Group's Active Bible Curriculum¬, now offering 39, four-session studies on a wide variety of topics.
5. Always plan a structured, active time for personal sharing (15 minutes). Kids must learn endurance and survival skills for dealing with parents, stepparents, live-ins, siblings and step-siblings. So give them time to talk and discover answers through one another. And, through discussion groups, help them practically apply what they've learned in the Bible study to their home, school and social settings.
6. Challenge kids to make a commitment to change (10 minutes). Always include at least one "challenge to commit" in your after-school program. Ask kids to each make a conscious commitment to change something about their life as a result of your Bible study and discussion time. If possible, link kids' commitment to a reminder.
For example: After a study on prayer your kids might decide to pray for their parents at least once every day. Have them each design a personalized piggy bank to take home with them. Tell them to drop a penny in the bank each time they pray for their parents. Then, after a few months, ask them to empty their piggy banks and buy something for their parents with the money. Kids can then present the gifts to their parents and tell them how they were purchased.
7. Get kids praying for each other (5 minutes). Invite prayer requests, join hands in a circle and ask kids to pray for one another. If a young person doesn't want to pray, ask him or her to squeeze the hand of the next person in the circle. Don't hesitate to pray this way with kids. You'll hear some unusually mature prayers, and you'll see kids make some impressive new commitments.
8. Focus kids on serving others (10 minutes or more). Plan some kind of service project for each after-school meeting. Make the projects relatively simple. For example: Form teams, give each team a trash bag and challenge kids to bring back the most trash from the neighborhood in a 10-minute "Trash Dash."
9. Give kids practical help with homework and personal struggles (the remainder of time). Use the remaining time to offer kids help with homework or with personal problems. Recruit high-achieving high school students and adults to help tutor kids. And train your program volunteers in counseling basics.
10. Say goodbye as warmly as you said hello. Ask at least one volunteer to be responsible for saying goodbye to kids as they leave. Ask your "goodbye-ers" to look for "three-second affirmation" opportunities, just as the greeters did. n
Buddy Scott is the author of Relief for Hurting Parents and the founder of Parenting Within Reason Support Groups for Christian parents in Texas.
Copyrightę 1992 Group Publishing, Inc. / GROUP Magazine