For many poor families, including some now making the transition
from welfare to work, the pressing need for child care is
increasingly being met by an unlikely helpmate: children themselves.
Recent research points to a hidden - but probably growing - trend
in which parents struggling to make ends meet leave young children
in the care of their older children, especially girls. Most often,
these regular child-care duties start around age 11 or 12, but some
as young as eight are responsible for feeding toddlers and putting
them to bed at night or getting them up in the morning while their
parent is at work.
While such responsibilities can foster maturity and compassion,
they can also overload kids of a tender age - emotionally and
educationally. Researchers who study poverty's effect on families
say, ultimately, the nation needs to address the shortage of
affordable child care, but that in the meantime, kids who act as
"second moms" can benefit from programs that take into account their
significant family duties.
"If we think children in our society need ... to have the room to
develop who they are and who they can be,... then we have to deal
with the material circumstances of ... poor families who
fundamentally rely on child labor to manage," says Lisa Dodson, a
researcher at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in
Cambridge, Mass., and author of a 1998 book about women and girls in
From Vanessa Santos's perspective, the responsibilities at home
are more than a 15-year-old should have to bear. She and her 14-
year-old sister live with their aunt and grandmother in Boston, and
they regularly take up mop and sponge to keep the house clean. They
also help their grandmother care for as many as five infants and
toddlers at a time, mostly relatives whose families can afford to
pay a small amount.
Vanessa does have a fun after-school outlet, working as a peer
adviser at Teen Voices, a multicultural magazine by and for girls.
But she wishes she had time for other things - including just
hanging out with friends.
"It's kind of fun working with the little kids," Vanessa says
during a break at the magazine office. "But after a while, when you
do it, like, every single day, it gets tiring.... I hardly have time
to do my homework."
Educational implications for both the older and younger siblings
"You can't separate what's happening on the child-care side ...
and what's happening to them on the education side," says Joan
Lombardi, a child- and family-policy specialist based in Alexandria,
Va. Not only do teens or preteens caring for children have less time
for homework, but some even miss school to fill in when other
arrangements for their siblings fall through.
Even students as young as middle-schoolers are forgoing programs
designed for after-school enrichment, says Beth Miller of the
National Institute on Out-of-School Time. "I don't think it often
occurs to the general public that many, many 12- to 14-year-olds are
carrying that kind of responsibility. …