Education Commentary

Easing the Transition From Child to Adult

By Joan Lipsitz — May 16, 1984 9 min read

Joan Lipsitz is director of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Successful Schools for Young Adolescents. This article is adapted from testimony originally delivered before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

People are forgetting about young adolescents from 10 to 15 years old. They too are spending a great deal of their after-school time aimlessly, at a stage in their lives when they are full of energy and in need of opportunities to expand on the academic and social skills they have learned during the school day. These students need a secure place to meet with their friends and interact with adults. Middle-grade schools are in an ideal position to work closely with their communities on this matter, advising them about the needs of young adolescents and how they can best be met after school.

It is unclear exactly how many 10- to 15-year-olds are left without supervision after school, but young adolescents are just as likely as young children to be affected by the social changes--such as more single-parent families and more working women--that have resulted in an increasing number of young children being left unattended after school. In fact, it is more likely that older children will be left alone.

In 1982, 22 percent of all children under 18 were in single-parent families. From 1970 to 1980, the greatest rate of increase (in terms of the number of children in single-parent families) occurred among children who were at least 10 years old. Among 10- to 17-year-olds, the increase was 50 percent.

Children in single-parent families are also the children whose mothers are most likely to work full time. Thus, these are the children least likely to be supervised at home after school, and on holidays and weekends.

The problem of supervision is not solely a problem in single-parent families, however. The 1980 average rate of participation in the labor force for mothers who are single parents was high (78 percent for those with children aged 6 to 17 years). But the comparable figure for married mothers--while lower--was also quite high at 66 percent.

Nationwide data about child-care arrangements for school-age children and adolescents are not available. Thus, we simply do not know how many of these young people lack contact with parents or other adults after school. The Census Bureau, in effect, has “lost” the supervision issue. The most recent nationwide data on the subject were collected in 1974.

We do know that inflation and cutbacks in federal and state funding are taking their toll on public services for children. For instance, as a result of the Reagan Administration’s 1981 budget cuts to Title XX--the largest federally subsidized day-care program for poor families--state and federal support for day care for low-income families has dropped by 14 percent. The cuts have forced day-care programs to raise their fees or, in some cases, to charge fees for the first time. As a result, many parents have found they have to choose which of their children they can afford to send. They understandably choose to pay for their younger children and withdraw the older siblings, who thus become the so-called “latchkey” children.

We also have scraps of data from local studies. A very careful 1982 study of 11- and 12-year-old children in Oakland, Calif., showed that no adult was at home to be with these 6th graders after school in 30 percent of one-parent families and 23 percent of two-parent families.

Nor is the isolation of adolescents limited to urban areas. A 1983 report in Montgomery County, Md., a largely suburban area, showed that over one-third of that county’s 9- to 11-year-olds, and approximately three-quarters of its 12- to 13-year-olds, are on their own or with a young sibling more than 10 hours per week. These statistics on “self-care” cross all income levels and races. What we seem to be witnessing, in Montgomery County and elsewhere, is a trend toward the increasing solitude of suburban youths. Suburbs are lonely places, with one exception: the shopping mall, our de facto community center for the youths of America.

Unfortunately, families and communities are uncertain about what it is young adolescents need during the after-school hours. The varying rates of physical, intellectual, and emotional growth among 10- to 15-year-olds preclude simple and uniform solutions and perpetuate the myth that this is a “difficult” age group. This myth is created, in part, by our tendency to adopt uniform policies that do not work with such a diverse group.

Some adolescents are able to handle with relative ease the dramatic changes in their bodies that occur during these years. For others, puberty is a disruptive experience, commonly bringing about feelings of helplessness. It is difficult for many adolescents to feel “normal” during these years. While the onset of puberty can vary by as much as six years, every adolescent wants to be right on the 50-yard line, right in the middle of the field. One is always too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, too hairy, too clear-skinned, too early, too late. Understandably, problems of self-image are rampant. Young adolescents need the stabilizing influences of adults who attempt to keep disruption to a minimum or who help guide them through these changes.

It is important to realize that young adolescents are especially vulnerable to the influences of their surroundings, their peers, and adults during these years. And the decisions they make as a result of these influences can have a drastic effect on their future. Consider the following alarming statistics:

  • Girls under 15 make up the only group of women in the country for whom the birth rate is not declining.
  • Twenty to 30 percent of 8th graders drink excessively. Heavy drinkers among older adolescents report they first drank at age 12.
  • Seventh-grade boys in junior high schools are the most victimized students--in terms of assault and theft--in our schools.
  • But it is also possible to influence young people positively. In particular, young people look to adults as role models and sources of affection and guidance. Surroundings that offer realistic expectations of youths, caring relationships with adults, and diverse opportunities for constructive and enjoyable activities with other students will expose youths to the best in themselves, their peers, and adults.

    One task of adolescence is discovery of one’s identity in a world of others. All too many young people do not receive consistent, positive, and realistic reflections of themselves from the adults on whom they deeply depend. Early adolescence is a time of striving for achievement and competence. Shaky in their self-esteem and intensely self-conscious, 10- to 15-year-olds are dependent on adults to afford them opportunities for achievement, competence, and social commitment. But policymakers have forgotten that education and socialization take place in the hours from 3:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. as well as during the school day. Because we give young adolescents almost no opportunities for recognized achievement beyond academics and athletics, many go without any positive adult recognition.

    Concern about after-school care for young adolescents may well increase as the number of working mothers continues to increase. The sheer numbers of unsupervised young teen-agers will intensify public apprehension and lead to calls for greater social control of the young. But opportunities for enriching experiences during the critical formative years of early adolescence should not be tied solely to labor-force and social-control issues.

    Parents cannot and should not be their young adolescents’ sole source of information or companionship. Given what we know about the need of young adolescents to become increasingly independent from their parents, adults other than parents must be available to them. Otherwise, we abandon our youngsters to the enlarging youth ghettos of the after-school hours.

    Instead of hearing calls for immediate attention to this issue, we are currently telling young adolescents to fend for themselves, through commercially published self-help manuals, latchkey survival kits, and soon-to-appear television spots about “taking care of yourself” that will be shown during Saturday-morning cartoons. Is this the best we can do?

    Some people apparently don’t think so. School officials are already feeling the pressure from concerned parents and citizen groups to open their doors before and after school. Understandably, schools fear the attendant costs and risks, such as higher utility bills, custodial charges, and vandalism.

    But such arrangements can work very well. For example, the Rheedlen Foundation, a truancy-prevention program in New York, rents space in the city’s Junior High School #54 for an after-school program. Four days a week, about 400 young people come to the school building from some of the toughest streets in New York. They benefit from a program that includes tutoring, counseling, health screening, bilingual classes, and recreation. Junior High School #54 has benefited as well, from an enhanced community perception of the school as a crucial social institution.

    In Derby, Kan., children, teen-agers, and adults enjoy a wide range of recreational and educational activities in the city’s public-school buildings after school and on weekends. In 1981, the citizens of Derby passed a referendum requiring that school facilities be made available, free, to individuals and groups wishing to use them. Funding for the program comes from the school levy.

    Public response to it has been over whelming. Since 1981, community use of school buildings outside of the school day has grown from virtually nothing to 9,500 hours per year. The school system has benefited too. Because of the widespread presence of Derby citizens on school property, vandalism costs in the schools have been reduced from $400 per month to less than $100 per month.

    It is intriguing that we must once again make the case for social attention to youths out of school. The case was made, successfully, in the early part of this century, when cities were flooded with immigrant youths. In those days, the voices calling for community centers that would get young people off the streets, teach them basic skills, and socialize them to mainstream American values, belonged to the rich and powerful. Today, we may question some of their motives, but few of us would take exception to their legacy: playgrounds, parks, and community centers. At present, the voices recalling us to a former commitment to youths are few and, ironically, no longer powerful.

    Public institutions, including schools, have been and still could be good providers of safe, supervised recreation, academic and cultural enrichment, and counseling after school. In addition, young adolescents do not have to be a drain on the resources of their communities. They can, instead, be resources for their communities. Young adolescents, when invited and encouraged, can provide companionship to the elderly, take care of younger children in day-care centers, construct community playgrounds, tutor and counsel their peers, work on telephone hotlines, plant and tend inner-city gardens, paint and weatherproof houses, serve as museum guides, work with handicapped children, work in candystriper programs in hospitals, do food shopping for the housebound, shovel snow, clean parks, and more. Their energy is proverbial. The question is only how the energy will be used--whether it will be against us, against themselves, or on behalf of us all. As Gwendolyn Brooks put it in a poem called “Boy Breaking Glass": “I shall create! If not a note, a hole. If not an overture, a desecration.”

    A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1984 edition of Education Week as Easing the Transition From Child to Adult