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Review: When School Age Children Care For Themselves

C. Cole & H. Rodman. (January 1987). “When school age children care for themselves: Issues for family life educators and parents.” Family Relations, 36(1), 92-96.


What exactly is a self-care arrangement anyway? Is it when a child comes home from school each day to an empty house? Is a four-year-old alone a self-care arrangement? How about a fifteen-year-old? What if there are other siblings at home-is that self-care? How often is a child alone before he or she considered to be in self-care? What is the impact of self-care on children? Why do parents choose this situation for their children? These are the questions addressed in this article.

The authors define a self-care child as one between the ages of 6 and 13 who spends time at home alone or with a younger sibling on a periodic basis. Four-year-olds are not able to care for themselves, so a four-year-old at home alone would be a situation of neglect rather than self-care. Fifteen-year-olds would be expected to be able to care for themselves, so they are also not included in this report. Kids between the ages of 6 and 13 are generally considered old enough to be alone a little bit yet young enough to require adult care most of the time. Kids staying with younger siblings or older ones not yet able to care for themselves are considered to be in self-care. Those staying with siblings old enough to care for themselves are not considered self-care. A child staying alone for ten minutes on a rare occasion of the mother running to the store quickly is not self-care, but a child staying thirty minutes or more on a rather regular basis is. This element is difficult to assess.

The number of kids in self-care situations is increasing because of the increase of mothers in the work force as well as the increase of single parent homes. Estimates run from 20,000 to 10 million. Variations in the numbers occur because of a lack of definition of what constitutes self-care as well as a reticence among parents to admit to leaving their children home alone. Latchkey children carry negative stereotypes because the issue has been closely tied with neglect. The social and legal context has hindered discussion. Socially, latchkey children have been associated with delinquent and predelinquent activity, idleness, fear, abuse, and abandonment.

This article reviews four studies. It found that of self-care children, 15% were left home alone before school, 76% after school, 9% in the evenings after 6 p.m. The results of the studies were mixed with limited research. Some studies found no negative effects on the social and academic adjustment of the kids. Others did find negative effects, such as increased fear and susceptibility to peer pressure, especially among girls. The study had some interesting findings pertaining to the characteristics of parents. Parents with higher than average incomes were more likely to care for their children themselves. Those with very high levels of educational achievement, lower than average income, and who were white tend more than others to expect kids to take care of themselves and their siblings. Some parents choose this arrangement out of necessity; other feel it is beneficial for the kids and developmentally appropriate. These parents see self-care as a training ground for adult responsibilities.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. In what ways might self-care be beneficial to children?
  2. In what ways might it be harmful?
  3. Why do families with whom you work who choose self-care for their children instead of adult care?
  4. Is there a generally positive or negative attitude toward self-care among the families you know?
  5. Do you feel this attitude is changing? Why?


  1. As youth workers interested in the whole child and his or her family, it is important to recognize the attitudes one might have toward the phenomenon of child self-care.
  2. Do not whole-handedly condemn the situation without first being sensitive to the parents and the situation they are in or have chosen for their children.
  3. Be willing to recognize the positive as well as the negative aspects of child self-care.

Delinda Higgins
© 2018 CYS

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