Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Characteristics of Children in Self-Care
Figure 1, based on data from the 1990 NCCS, shows the percentage of children ages 3 to 12 who were in regular self-care, by age. The clear relationship between the age of the child and likelihood of being in self-care, with 11- to 12-year-olds more than 10 times as likely to be in self-care as 5- to 7-year-olds, is consistent with the notion that as children age, they become better able to shoulder the responsibility of self-care.
There is some evidence that the amount of time children spend in self-care also increases with the age of the child. Data from the 1995 SIPP show that the percentage of all children in self-care who spent more than 10 hours per week alone was 7.2% for children 5- to 11-years-old, and 16.4% for children 12- to 14-years-old.19 Another study found that first-grade children who were left alone spent on average less than 10 minutes per week alone. Fifth graders in self-care spent an average of two hours per week alone.20
Figure 1 also indicates that approximately 1% of preschool-age children experience self-care on a regular basis. While this percentage is small, it means that approximately 67,000 preschoolers are left alone regularly.21 Research on the effects of self-care on children has focused primarily on school-age children, perhaps because it is commonly agreed that preschoolers would be better off if properly supervised. The fact that tens of thousands of very young children are left alone regularly, if not in itself a signal to policymakers to address the need for alternatives for these children, is at least a call for researchers to take a closer look at why these children are left on their own, and how time spent in self-care affects them.
Table 1, based on data from the 1995 SIPP, shows the percentages of children ages 5 to 11 years in self-care, by parent marital and employment status. While 2.7% of children of married but not employed parents experience self-care, more than five times as many children (14.1%) of single, full-time employed parents are left alone. This data supports the notion that parental availability is a significant factor in whether a child spends time alone. Both the number of parents in the household as well as their employment status appear to affect the probability that a child will be left alone.10
The relationship between use of self-care and family income (or the ability to pay for child care) has intrigued many researchers. Data from a 1984 survey showed a positive relationship between family income and use of self-care: Almost 11% of children ages 5 to 13 from families with incomes of at least $35,000 were in self-care, while less than 5% of children from families with incomes less than $15,000 were in self-care.22 These results led some researchers to suggest that self-care is not, as popularly believed, a choice used only when parents could not afford better alternatives.23 This conclusion, however, may not be correct.
Other factors related to a parent's choice of self-care may be related to family income, thus creating the appearance that income more strongly affects parents' care choices than it actually does. For instance, employed parents may be both more likely to use self-care and to have higher incomes. Similarly, high-income parents may be more likely to perceive their neighborhoods as safe and thus more likely to use self-care. Finally, on average, higher-income parents are more likely to have older children (because as time passes and children age, their parents' incomes rise as a result of acquired work experience and/or educational credentials) and thus are more likely to use self-care.
A careful analysis of data on self-care could sort out the possibility of interactions among these various factors. A preliminary analysis of the 1995 SIPP data suggests that parental employment is a strong predictor of the use of self-care, as are parents' perceptions of neighborhood safety.10 However, the direct relationship among income, ability to pay for child care, and use of self-care has not yet been clarified.