My kids are filthy, covered in sweat, with matted hair and huge grins on their faces. They bathe in the cold air blasting on them in the car and tell me about all the things they did today. Building forts, investigating caterpillars, learning how to build campfires. My eight-year-old exclaims, “It is SO much better than going to work with you, Mom!”
They just finished their first day at camp — ever.
In years past, I lugged them along to work with me. I was fortunate that I had a job where that was possible, even though they hated it and would be zombie-eyed and crabby from eight hours of waiting for me to get off. Their time there was spent at computers and video screens. Mine was spent feeling guilty and anxious about not having enough for them to do, or money to afford anything else.
Even so, my kids were the lucky ones. Working parents who cannot afford summer childcare don’t always have the option to bring their kids to a relatively comfortable office.
- In the library, a woman in a fast-food uniform drops off her 10-year-old daughter. She reminds her not to leave the building and tells her she’ll be back after work.
- A group of four children hang out at the end of the bushy rows of tomatoes, where their parents are picking the fruit. They loll in the sparse shade cast by the work trucks.
- A woman who recently left an abusive relationship took her young daughter to live in a boarding house. When she leaves to work 10-hour shifts at a loading company, she locks the child in their room and admonishes her to not open the door for anyone.
In this census published in 2013, the government found that 4.2 million grade school age children engage in what they euphemistically call “self-care” while their parents are at work. This means that roughly 1 out of every 10 US children are left home alone. This number may be higher in the summer, as there is no differentiation in the study between school and vacation days.
A Google search turns up a number of NC summer camp scholarship opportunities, but most of these are in urban areas. Also, it appears that many of the openings are filled as early as January for the following season. This leaves out a huge swath of our state’s families.
Most families seem to cobble together a complicated scheduling system to find care. But relying on flexible workdays, half-day summer school calendars, and favors from grandparents and family friends are not options for everyone.
In North Carolina, there are no laws dictating minimum age for children to be left unattended, and the creation of such a law would unduly persecute low-income families.
There is no easy solution to this problem, but is one that is prevalent and worthy of further attention. What are some ways we can ameliorate this?
Leanne Simon is a mother, writer and social justice worker. She holds degrees in Child Development and Spanish from North Carolina Central University, and is currently pursuing a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at UNC-Greensboro.