Between the hours of 3:30 and 5 pm, I've learned the following information about my kids' classmates:
who is cutting
who is having sex
who is smoking pot
who is sneaking out at night
who is contemplating or has attempted suicide
who is being abused at home
who has access to guns
This treasure trove of data flows freely at our kitchen table on a daily basis. The precious first few moments when kids walk in the door after school are a magical window of opportunity - they are weary from carrying information that is complex and disturbing all day, and they want help making sense of it. Just like that big heavy backpack ... it's such a relief to drop the burden with a thud the second they get in the door.
For this reason, I try to make it a point to stop whatever I am doing and sit down with them while they eat a hearty snack. On the days that I miss this magic window, they have moved on to other projects by the time we connect, and the concerns of the school day are no longer so easily accessible.
These kitchen table conversations about other people's problems (or OPP as they call them on a local radio station) are PRICELESS. We hash it all out together in neutral territory. I get to say things like, "Wow, I wonder if your friends know that if they don't use condoms correctly, they could get pregnant." Or, "Gee, I wonder if she considered that those naked pictures she texted to her boyfriend's cell phone could end up being seen by thousands of people on the internet."
If my kids think I'm being paranoid or overly cautious, we often move to the computer to do some research together to prove me wrong. (And sometimes I am wrong ... but not often. LOL) Many times those informative links get emailed off to their classmates.
Of course, there's a more obvious benefit to being home after school if you can. Research tells us that an astronomical percentage of first sexual encounters and drug experimentation happens between the hours of 3 and 6 pm.
If you have to work and can't be home to supervise, here are a few ideas for supportive structures you might consider putting in place: call home frequently, text them, come home early without notice every so often so they never know when you might show up, or randomly send a neighbor to your door to ask for a cup of sugar.
You might also encourage your teen get an after school job. Something as simple as helping the mom next door take care of her young children or walking dogs in the neighborhood can be productive, income-generating, and encourages pro-social connections.
Even the most reponsible kids still have moments of brain snafu, so don't make it easy for them to get into permanent trouble while acting on a temporary impulse. Know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. Our teens still need adult supervision -- not the prying and intrusive kind of supervision, but the kind that could knock on their door any second to deliver a plate of cookies, and will notice what they are up to.