Your son or daughter is finally in grammar school. Your daycare worries should be a thing of the past. Dream on! What about the gap between the time your kids get out of school and when you get home from work? And let's face it - money doesn't grow on trees; while hiring a nanny or au pair would be great, it's not in everyone's budget.
So what do you do? You could change your work hours. One parent can work later and one can work earlier, or the duties can be shared with another family member. The advantage is that someone is always at home when the kids are. The disadvantage with this type of tag team parenting: partners see less of each other. Spending family time together is already a hard order to fill for busy families.
How about staying home alone? You're not likely to leave your first grader home alone, but most middle or high school aged kids are responsible enough to look after themselves for a few hours. According the Household Survey on After school in America, only six percent of middle or junior high school aged kids are in after school programs. Another 34 percent are unsupervised in the afternoons.
The reality is, most families piece after school care and activities together as best they can. About 75 percent of families have a patchwork of activities scheduled throughout any given week. So you can do what 6.5 million families around the country are doing, find an after school program to fill in the gaps. And after school programs offered through local organizations can be inexpensive and fun.
Things to Consider When Choosing an After School Program
- What is the overall cost? Does it include materials and meals? If you are talking baseball, softball, martial arts, or any sport, they often require a uniform be bought up front. Many programs have a limited number of scholarships available.
- Do you have to commit to five days a week or can you use the program less often? Less visits will likely cost less, which can be a big plus for a tight budget.
- Is there a discount for siblings? It's tough to pay double for having two kids in the same program.
- Is there a late fee if you have to pick your child up after the program is over? Stuff happens. When it does, will it cost you extra because you're running late? Can you make arrangements in advance for someone to do the picking up?
- What kind of transportation arrangements need to be made? Do you know other kids who attend? Is it close to school, or will you have to share carpooling duties with another parent?
- Does the program you are considering fit with your work schedule? This is, after all, one of the goals of finding after school care.
- What about holidays, and in-service days? An after school program is great, but what if there is no school that day? No one wants to be caught short on supervision on an in-service day. Are their special extended hours on holidays?
- Is the space safe and clean? Is there enough physical space for what they plan to do? You need to feel comfortable leaving your child there.
A Good Fit
- Are the activities age appropriate? For younger ones, non-competitive sports are good, leaving lots of room for just plain old playtime. By the fourth grade, the homework is likely piling up. Some sort of academic support might be helpful, access to a computer or homework help while still leaving time for play. Is there enough supervision?
- Keep in mind your child's personality, likes and dislikes. Talk about his interests before committing to a program. You may be dreaming of a piano prodigy, she may be dreaming of being the first woman on a major league baseball team. Consider his personality, maybe he does better in small groups than large ones.
- Are nutritious meals or snacks provided? You need to know how much food to pack in the morning to last him through the day.
What About Home Alone?
No one really wants their son or daughter to have an experience like that kid in the "Home Alone" movies. (Although you wouldn't leave your kids home by accident and go on vacation.) The reality is, there are simply more programs geared toward younger kids available in most areas. Furthermore, most drug use, teen sexual activity, and other risky behavior happen during the unsupervised after school time.
There is no magic number that determines a child is old enough to stay home alone. The National SAFE KIDS Campaign, a national organization dedicated to child safety, recommends that kids not be left alone before the age of 12. But there are a lot of things to consider before making the decision.
You will need to decide just how well your daughter or son reacts to stressful situations.
- Are they mature enough to handle a potentially dangerous situation like a power outage or stranger at the door?
- Do you feel comfortable trusting them with a house key, or should you hide one outside somewhere?
- Can they find constructive things to do, like reading or homework or chores so as not to get bored?
The big questions is: does your son or daughter feel comfortable being home alone? To you the ideal afternoon may mean your child is doing homework and watching TV or reading a book. The reality often means that your eighth grader wants to hang out with his friends. Friends are a very important part of a teenager's life. You will need to decide if you are comfortable with other kids in the house, or if you will allow plenty of afternoon phone use.
Establishing ground rules in advance is a great start. Talk about all the things your child would like to do, and what you are comfortable with and what you are not.