You are in an archived section of the AIFS website 


Content type
Family Matters article

December 1992


As the number of women in the workforce has increased in the 1980s and 1990s, out-of-school-hours care has become just as important for school aged children as other forms of child care are for pre-school children. For various reasons, however, some school aged children care for themselves at home alone. The author of this article looks at recent research that challenges some of the popular wisdom about the effects on children of coming home after school to an empty house. She also makes reference to programs for home-alone children, such as Telecom Australia's Call Control, Kids Help Line, and US programs for 'latch-key' children.

Children alone in the home are the focus of community concern; for parents, such a situation is often a cause of anxiety and guilt. These children are often referred to as 'latch-key' children, a term which has negative connotations. The term 'self-care' is preferred because, for children, the experience of looking after themselves is not always a negative one, and may even be a part of the experience of becoming independent. Robinson, Rowland and Coleman (1989) state:

A home-alone child or a self care child is one who has the responsibility of caring for himself or herself in an unsupervised setting on a regular basis. For some children the time spent in self care IS short and relatively stress-free. For others it entails the care of brothers and sisters, being alone for long hours, and having untold fears and apprehensions.

Some children enjoy self care and develop independence and self-reliance. They are trusted to make reasonable decisions and do perfectly fine when left home alone. Others simply cannot handle the pressures of self care and are overwhelmed with rules and responsibilities. (p.xi)

Although there has been an increase in recent years in the number of places available in out-of-school-hours care in Australia, the number of places by no means meets the need in the community. Some working parents choose to make private arrangements (such as employing a babysitter in their own home, or arranging for care in the home of a caregiver); others have no option but to make such private arrangements. Grandparents are frequently favoured as caters. Other parents use siblings to care for younger children, if they feel they are old enough, and/or if they have no other option and cannot afford the cost of alternative care. And some parents must leave their child at home alone. School aged children are also likely to express their preferences for or dislike of particular forms of care, and this will also affect the choice of out-of-school-hours care.

It is difficult to estimate the number of children in self care. In the United States, Cam and Hofferth (1989) used data from the 1984 Current Population Survey to estimate the number of school children aged 5-13 who were left unsupervised or in the care of another person aged 14 years or less (probably a sibling) before or after school or at night. The results indicated that 2.4 million United States children, or about 8 per cent of those in the 5-13 age group, cared for themselves or were in the care of someone under 14 years at some time during the day. This was less than previous estimates and substantially less than popularly believed. Other estimates are as high as 15 million, and some researchers believe that there are more American children in self care than any other form of care other than parent care (Dowd 1991).

One of the main problems in collecting information on children in self care is that parents may be reluctant to reveal that they leave their children without supervision, particularly when such an arrangement may be in breach of the law because of the young age of the children. There is also a problem in defining self care - the length of time involved, the frequency, the age of the children, and the presence of siblings (Dowd 1991).

There is little information available in Australia on the extent of self care by school aged children, although a study of the use of out-of-school-hours care by children in 11 ethnic communities in Melbourne found that many parents in these communities did not know about out-of-school-hours care, even where it was available in their area. Ethnic communities, the report stated, may therefore be over represented among children at home alone (VICSEG 1988).

The Institute's Children in Families Study, carried out in 1982-83, also gives some indication that of out-of-school-hours self care or care by siblings is not uncommon in this country, although it is more prevalent among older children who are becoming independent.

This study found that of the 402 children who were asked about their after-school activities, 14 per cent came home to an empty house: however, only 8 per cent of the 95 primary children (aged 8-9 years) came home to an empty house compared with 20 per cent of the 207 adolescents (aged 15-16 years). (Children were not specifically asked about the use of after-school care which was less available at the time.) just on three quarters of these children said that someone arrived home within the hour (three-quarters) or within two hours (20 per cent). Where children came home to an empty house, the next person to arrive home in 29 per cent of families was a brother or sister. Where someone was at home when the children arrived from school, in about a quarter of the families it was a brother or sister rather than a parent.

More recent information on the topic is being obtained in the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study. The results for the first area of the study to be analysed, Berwick, a fringe municipality in the south-cast of Melbourne, show that 10 per cent of the 357 primary school children included in the survey either look after themselves or are looked after by an older sibling while their parents are at work. However, the time for which this situation applies is very short, averaging only three hours per week.

The table below shows the percentage of primary school children in Berwick who looked after themselves or were looked after by a sibling while their parents were at work in 1991.

Age of child%

Although self care is often portrayed negatively and as harmful to children, this is not necessarily so. Self care may be quite adequate in meeting the needs of some children (Cain and Hofferth 1989):

Concern about children in self care, 'latchkey' children, has been motivated by the belief that there is a large and increasing number of children in self care and that there are deleterious consequences for these children. The picture that is often presented is one of large numbers of children spending long hours in dangerous situations and experiencing high levels of fear. While this is certainly true in some cases, the prognosis for children in self care is not uniformly negative. Parents may choose to use self care for their children when they perceive their children as being more responsible and independent and/or the parents are better able to control a self care situation either through pre-planning or providing supervision by telephone. Nor is there agreement either that the number of latch-key children is high or that the time they spend in such care is long (p.65).

Studies have found that the stereotype of latch-key children coming from poor or single-parent families is inaccurate; self care was used more often by middle or upper-income white mothers living in suburban or rural areas, and more often by two-parent families (Cain and Hofferth 1989. Dowd 1991). The most important factor associated with self care was the age of the child, with older children being more likely than younger children to be in self care. Children in larger families were more likely to be in self care (which includes care by a sibling under 14). The data also showed that most children were in self care (including the care of someone under 14) for less than two hours per day (Cain and Hofferth 1989).

Another study of latch-key children in the United States found that the element of supervision is important in assessing whether self care has the potential to be harmful or benign in its effects on children. Cain and Hofferth (1989) cite Steinberg (1986):

In many cases, the children who returned home to an empty house were supervised via telephone and were expected to check in with their parents promptly upon their return, while others stopped at friends' houses where there were no adults present or were simply 'hanging out' in shopping malls. Steinberg found that the further removed the adolescents were from adult supervision, the more susceptible they were to peer pressure to engage in antisocial behaviour. (p.66)

Nevertheless, Cain and Hofferth (1989) found that although most children were older and caring for themselves for only a short time each day there were some children who were at risk. A group of 5 - 7- year-olds (231, 222) were in self care after school and a proportion of these (32, 191) were in self or sibling care for more than three hours. It has also been found in risky inner city areas in the United States that many children do not remain in the out-of-school-hours care programs that are available (Halpern 1992).

However, the consequences of self care are inadequately researched at present and not enough is known about what these children are actually doing while at home. There is some research that indicates some children are unhappy and/or frightened in self care, and other contrasting research indicating that children are unaffected; other studies have found that children in self care are better adjusted and more independent than their constantly supervised age mates. There is a suggestion that community differences may account for differences in outcomes in studies of children in self care (Dowd 1991).

In the United States, children in self care pose a problem in many public libraries. As Dowd (1991) points out:

Library latch-key children are a prominent and significant group of children needing public library services. In fact, this clientele was the most frequently identified special population of children in the 1980s - in terms of atypical circumstances - mentioned by librarians in a recent survey.

These children may spend their time after school in the library although they are not particularly interested in using the library materials and may distract other library users. They are often sent there by parents who consider libraries to be safe and convenient places for children to wait. These children sometimes present space and control problems for librarians.

Libraries in the United States, where the formal provision of child care services is less adequate than in Australia, have developed a number of successful programs and strategies for children in self care. These include both informal drop-in programs as well as formally advertised activities at specific times such as films, puppet shows, craft activities, games, and the use of audio-visual materials. Many libraries have cooperated with other community agencies such as YMCA, YWCA, youth bureaus and recreation services to cope with the situation. For more information on these activities see Latch-key Children in the Library and Community: Issues, Strategies and Programs (Dowd 1991).

Choosing Self Care: The Working Parent's Guide

Even where children have been in supervised 'out-of-school-hours care, the time comes, as they get older, when they do not want to be cared for either formally or informally while their parents are at work. Such rejection of care is often nothing to do with the quality of care available or dislike of the caregiver. Rather, it is related to the children's age and growing independence, and their feeling of having outgrown the activities available in their after-school program and the company of younger children.

Parents are then faced with leaving their child at home alone. Those who are working in a flexible work situation or part-time may change their working hours so that they can be at home after school, but for other parents this may be impossible and they must judge not only whether their child is old enough, but also whether s/he is sufficiently trustworthy, sensible and competent to be left alone.

This transition between supervised care to self care is frequently a difficult time for parents. The child insists that s/he is able to cope alone and will be quite safe and sensible, while the parents worry about the child's safety, maturity, and ability to cope with unexpected events. Parents may also fear criticism from others for not being with their children. The situation is made even more troubled if there are younger siblings involved whom the parents feel still need care.

Working parents with a child at home alone often feel particularly anxious around the time that school finishes until they are able to check that their child is safely at home. There is evidence that this anxiety may affect work performance and lead to an increase in mistakes (Dowd 1991).

A useful book for working parents in this situation is Home-Alone Kids., The Working Parent's Complete Guide to Providing the Best Care for Your Child (Robinson, Rowland and Coleman 1989). This book helps working parents in their decision about whether or not their child is mature enough, and their house safe enough, to leave them at home alone. It contains checklists to help parents judge the maturity of their children and their suitability for self care.
The book covers the following topics: Should you leave your child home alone? What should you do before deciding on home-alone care for your child? How can you plan the best home-alone care? How are your kids adjusting to homealone care? How can you balance your work and home-alone care? What can you do when home-alone care is not working? How can you bolster your child's home-alone care? A knapsack of resources.

When assessing whether it is safe to leave their child alone, the authors advise parents to take into account the following indicators of their child's maturity. Is the child's behaviour usually responsible, is the child argumentative, does the child usually follow rules, does the child usually keep promises or do they have trouble, does the child get scared by him/herself especially as it gets dark, is the child content to entertain him/ herself, does the child follow directions well, does the child respect other people's property, does the child get very upset if something unexpected happens and is the child clumsy and poorly coordinated?

The authors say that if parents decide that the child is sufficiently mature and trustworthy to be left alone they should then check out the safety of their home, accidents being more common among unsupervised children. For example, electrical and mechanical equipment should be locked away, locks secured on doors and windows, medicines labelled and separated from food, directions for appliances written clearly, numbers of local emergency services listed clearly and prominently, a smoke alarm fitted, and a list of dos and don'ts provided. Furthermore, rules should be clear, agreed to and listed, a check-in system should also be established, procedures for answering the telephone and door, and a schedule of after-school activities agreed to, listed and followed.

Cain and Hofferth (1989) indicate that the following characteristics are associated with quality self care arrangements: the age and maturity of the child, the quality of the care setting - that is, a 'good' neighbourhood with few risks and a house in which the child is exposed to few potentially dangerous items. The father or mother's job flexibility and ability to contact the child (and the child's ability to contact his or her parents) are other aspects of quality arrangements.

Programs for Home-Alone Children

Telecom Australia provides 'Call Control', a service which is useful for parents whose children are at home alone. This service provides a means of restricting outgoing calls to particular numbers so that children cannot use the telephone for endless calls to friends thus preventing parents from calling to check on them (as well as running up large telephone bills). Important numbers such as the doctor, police and emergency services, parent's work numbers and the number of a neighbour or relative, can be programmed in - the choice is up to the family. All incoming calls are received but children can only ring out on the programmed numbers. More information about this service is available through local Telecom branches.

'Kids Help Line' is also a service available to children in many States of Australia. However, although it may be used by children at home alone, its focus is broader: it provides a listening car and confidential help for children with problems of any sort, via a free 008 number. For further information phone Trevor Carlyon (07) 369 1588.

In the United States there are a number of schemes to assist children who are in self care without adult supervision, whether they are at home alone because there is no other option, or because they have reached the stage where they refuse other forms of out-of-school hours care. The following is a selection of such schemes.

'Kidline', run by the Tucson Association for Child Care In Arizona, is funded by the city, a charity fund and private foundations. It aims 'to provide an interested listener who will, if appropriate , teach children home safety and use of emergency service numbers, provide guidance for homework problems, accidents, illness, an make referrals to other community resources' (Wolcott 1989:17). In Michigan, the 'LatchMatch' program has been instituted to link senior citizens with children who are at home alone after school. Each day the senior citizen, chosen from the geriatric service attached to the University of Michigan Medical Center, rings the child after school to chat, offer help with homework and to check any concerns of the child. This service has proved helpful to the elderly, by connecting them with outside world, and to the children, who have developed a heightened sensitivity to the needs of older citizens (Work and Family 1992).

Another service, the 'Intergenerational LatchKey Program', is sponsored by a company which operates retirement facilities and nursing homes in several states and local schools. This after school child care program is for low income single-parent families; the schools select students who, along with a school coordinator and the nursing and retirement homes, provide personnel, materials and refreshments for activities. Students and the elderly become acquainted through an orientation program to sensitise the children to the limitations of the elderly. They engage in a variety of activities including art and craft, storytelling, games, help with homework, and sometimes community service programs such as preparing food for the homeless (Wolcott 1989).

Further information on the many different types of schemes operating in the United States is available in 'Local and national responses to latch-key children' in Latch-key Children in the Library and Community (Dowd 1991).

Australia is meeting the needs of school aged children whose parents are not available to care for them by providing out of school hours care programs. Some workplaces are also acknowledging the difficulties faced by these parents and provide services such as vacation care. But this is only a beginning: not only are more such services required, but also a greater variety of programs are needed to accommodate the changing needs of growing children and the particular situations of their working parents.


  • Cain, V.S. and Hofferth, S.L. (1989), 'Parental choice of self care for school aged children', Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 51, pp.65-77.
  • Dowd, F. S. (1991), Lackkey Children in the Library and Community. Issues, Strategies, and Programs, Oryx Press, Phoenix Arizona.
  • Halpern, R. (1992), 'The role of after-school programs in the lives of inner-city children: a study of the Urban Youth Network', Child Welfare, VoLLXXI No.3, pp.215-230.
  • Robinson, B., Rowland B. H. and Coleman, M. (1989), Home-Alone Kids, Lexington Books, Lexington Ma.
  • VICSEG (1989), The Latch-key, Children: Their Name is 'Ethnic', Victorian Cooperative on Children's Services for Ethnic Groups, Melbourne.
  • Wolcott, l (1989), 'Not just for the young: family support programs in the United States', Family Matters, No. 25, p. 55.
  • Wolcott, 1. (1989), 'Kidline: a telephone support', Family Matters, No. 23, p. 17.
  • Work and Family (1992), National Report on Work and Family, Vol.5, No. 12.