Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
In summary, the best available national surveys of the use of self-care, the 1990 NCCS and 1995 SIPP, indicate that at least 12% of children (3.7 million in 1995) of kindergarten, elementary, and middle-school age experience self-care on a regular basis. While these national surveys may underestimate the prevalence of self-care, there seems to be no evidence of an increase in the prevalence of self-care among 5- to 12-year-olds between 1990 and 1995. In addition, these surveys show that the prevalence of regular self-care is lower for younger children within that age range and higher for the older children. The 1990 NCCS also indicates that approximately 1% of preschool-age children experience self-care on a regular basis.33
Taken together, national surveys and smaller studies, despite their limitations, provide some useful information for policymakers. The fact that tens of thousands of preschoolers spend time unsupervised is a case in point. These very young children clearly form one group that merits the further attention of both researchers and policymakers. A second useful lesson is that self-care is not a simply defined experience that always requires or is amenable to a one-size-fits-all policy prescription. The evidence shows that parents choose self-care for their children under a wide variety of circumstances and for a wide variety of reasons. Some children may be fortunate enough to experience self-care as a safe, developmentally appropriate step toward independence. Others may be left alone before they are mature enough to cope and may even suffer emotional or physical harm as a result. Future research could focus on refining our understanding of which children suffer as a result of self-care and what care alternatives would best meet the needs of those children and their families.