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Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999

CHILD INDICATORS: Children in Self-Care
Nancy Kerrebrock Eugene M. Lewit


Every child reaches a point somewhere between infancy and young adulthood when he or she takes a step toward independence by caring for himself or herself for a period of time when no adult is present. Family decisions to allow their children to care for themselves vary widely, depending among other things on the family's view of the risks associated with self-care, the child's readiness for self-care, the circumstances in which the child will care for himself or herself, and the resources available to provide adult supervision.

One child, for instance, may take that step toward independence at age 11 or 12, at home alone in a low-crime neighborhood, reassured by the presence of a reliable neighbor, well rehearsed on how to respond to the telephone and doorbell, and connected to a parent via the telephone. Another child may first experience self-care at a much younger age, in a high-crime neighborhood, with no trustworthy neighbors, and no telephone.

The consequences for children of being left unsupervised also vary; some children suffer no ill effects, and in fact enjoy their independence, while other children find the self-care experience to be scary and detrimental to their healthy development. The latter circumstance may occasionally result in tragedy.1 News reports sensationalize the tragic consequences of leaving children unsupervised (as when Detroit parents returned home after 45 minutes away to find that all seven of their children, ages seven months to nine years, had perished in a swift-moving, smoky fire),2 while failing to acknowledge the millions of children in self-care who suffer no negative consequences.

In making the decision to leave a child in self-care, parents must consider not only the potential risks to the child but also the legal implications. In most states the laws about child supervision are unclear, but legal authorities can interpret self-care as child neglect or endangerment. Only two states explicitly outlaw self-care, defined in terms of the age of the child and the duration or setting of neglect. Illinois state law prohibits leaving a child under age 13 unsupervised for 24 hours or more.3 Maryland specifically prohibits briefer episodes of self-care for children under age eight: "A person who is charged with the care of a child under the age of eight years may not allow the child to be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle out of sight of the person charged unless the person charged provides a reliable person of at least 13-years-old to remain with the child to protect the child."4 Penalties for violation of this law include imprisonment, and Maryland does enforce the law.

Local jurisdictions may also address the issue of self-care in their legal codes, and local child protective services charged with investigating cases of child neglect have operating policies regarding the circumstances under which self-care is inappropriate. For instance, a typical policy is to investigate all reports of children home alone when the child is younger than six years, some "select" cases in which the child is under the age of 11, and few or none of the cases involving children 11 or more years of age.5 Vague language in laws in most states gives parents little official guidance as to what is permissible, while highly publicized cases of parents prosecuted for leaving children unsupervised contribute to parents' fears.6 Some local child protection agencies and child advocacy groups have prepared guides for parents to determine whether their children are old enough and mature enough to be home alone. The guides emphasize points such as the child's emotional maturity and mastery of safety procedures such as answering the doorbell and phone properly, preparing food and using appliances safely, and summoning emergency help when appropriate.7 While such guides may be useful to parents, they cannot ensure a child's safety, nor do they absolve a parent of responsibility should a child encounter harm when unsupervised.

It is precisely because self-care can have negative consequences for children and their families that measuring the percentage of children who experience self-care is of interest. As more and more mothers participate in the labor force, encouraged by welfare reform and other economic and social forces, reliable information on how many children care for themselves, who they are, and how they are affected by being on their own is increasingly important. The purpose of this Child Indicators article is to review the best available estimates of the prevalence of self-care among children (prevalence is defined as the percentage of children of a specified age who experience self-care during a specified time period), with careful attention paid to how self-care is defined and the limits on interpreting the prevalence estimates.

The primary data sources for the prevalence estimates are large nationally representative surveys, which provide information about the number and demographic characteristics of children in self-care. However, survey data reveal little about the effects of self-care on children. Researchers identify at least three types of risk to which children in self-care may be subject: (1) the risk of injury, (2) the risk of suffering emotional or psychological harm, and (3) the risk of poor physical, social, and intellectual development due to poor choices of activities when in self-care.8 The latter two categories of risk have been researched and are discussed in the article by Vandell and Shumow in this journal issue. The risk of injury when in self-care, however, is a topic that has received remarkably little attention from researchers, despite the attention given in the popular press to disastrous outcomes among some children in self-care. Further work on this topic might provide valuable information on the specific types of injury risks faced by children home alone and how injuries could be prevented.

Given the wide variety of circumstances under which children may be left on their own, defining what is meant by self-care and how to measure it is a challenge. Since the first national estimates of the prevalence of children in self-care were made more than 30 years ago, the trend has been to collect ever greater detail about when, for how long, how often, and why children care for themselves. These changing data collection approaches, however, make it difficult to measure trends in the prevalence of self-care over time.

Two recent surveys, however—the National Child Care Survey, 1990 (NCCS), and the Survey of Income and Program Participation, 1995 (SIPP)—were similar enough in their conceptualization of self-care and their questionnaire construction that their results may be compared.9,10 Estimates from both the NCCS and SIPP suggest that 12% of all children ages 5 to 12 care for themselves at least once a week. Thus, these surveys suggest that the prevalence of self-care among 5- to 12-year-olds changed little between 1990 and 1995.