"Parents often assume their kids can handle more independence than they are truly ready for," says Sue Blaney, author of Please Stop the Rollercoaster! How Parents of Teenagers Can Smooth Out the Ride. Research by the Afterschool Alliance demonstrates that unsupervised time can lead to an increase in juvenile crime, teenage pregnancies, drug and alcohol use, and poor school performance.
More Than Supervision
Still, providing adult oversight is only part of the puzzle. "Middle school kids have dramatic needs in terms of social and physical stimulation, and parents need to be sure those needs are met when they explore after-school opportunities," Blaney says. Many kids enjoy physical activity because it's an effective way to relieve built-up energy and tension. They also crave socialization. "They want to be with their own," she says. When evaluating a program, Blaney says, "Look at what the kids are doing." Find out if the program offers both social and physical activities, and whether they provide ways to open kids' minds to new and interesting opportunities.
Taking the School Out of After School
If an after-school program isn't an option for you, consider what Nancy Brown did. "When my 12-year-old daughter Surya was in 5th and 6th grade, she'd walk down or bike over to my office after school if I needed to stay late. We had an extra room where we set up a TV with a DVD player, and she'd get to buy a snack from the employee cafeteria. She liked it."
Finding after-school alternatives for your middle schooler can require some creativity on your part. To start your search:
- Explore your community. Local community and recreation centers, YMCAs, libraries, museums, places of worship, Boys and Girls Clubs, and local parks may offer a variety of programs that meet your child's needs.
- Look into volunteering. If your child enjoys being with younger children, perhaps she'd like to volunteer at a day care center or preschool. If your child loves animals or the environment, a local pet shelter or park may be eager for her help.
- Talk to your neighbors. Perhaps they're in a similar situation. Create a multi-family co-op, suggests Blaney. Rotate responsibility each week for carpooling, supervising homework, and keeping the kids happy and safe.
- Sign up for sports. Practices keep your child busy after school and let him burn off excess energy. If he's more observer than athlete, he might enjoy helping a team as a record-keeper or equipment manager.