At 3 P. M., Working Parents Worry


When school dismissal bells ring, working parents hear the sound miles away.

No matter that these adults are in stores, offices and factories, waiting on customers, answering telephones, assembling automobiles.

Working parents begin to let their minds wander, taking mental note of their children’s whereabouts, tracing their routes home or to after-school activities, gauging the time it should take them, checking the clock, waiting for the phone to ring.

And when it doesn’t, calling home.


“It’s 3 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” is the question that tenses America’s working parents--and slows down workplaces--in the afternoons. When the answer is yes, workers relax; business picks up again.

It’s been called the Three O’Clock Syndrome and the Angst Hour--a time when worker productivity dips and business phone lines jam and parents come face to face with balancing their work and family lives.

Although hard data on the Three O’Clock Syndrome is difficult to come by, parents, child-care advocates and even employers agree that it happens.

“The ‘Hi, Mom, I’m home’ phone calls start hitting office switchboards as school lets out across the country,” John Fernandez wrote in his 1986 book, “Child Care and Corporate Productivity: Resolving Work-Family Conflicts.”

“The Three O’Clock Syndrome sets in, with employees hunched over phones, whispering admonitions about homework and directions about making dinner,” he continued.

“Employers can hear what goes on at 3 o’clock, the phone calls coming in and going out,” says Susan Ginsberg, associate dean of the Bank Street College of Education in New York.

“It’s an accepted phenomenon,” says Dr. Patricia Fossarelli, a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Children’s Center, who has studied and counseled latchkey children.

It’s also a pressure cutter. “Being able to reach your kids at The Angst Hour may function as a safety valve,” said Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute in New York City. “Fathers who did not think it was cool for them to call their kids had fantasies” about what evils were befalling them, she added.


“I just need to know they are home,” said Jean Page of her 11- and 12-year-old youngsters. “I just look at the clock; by 3:10 I start calling and getting real nervous,” said the Baltimore County mother whose problems finding care for her children when they were younger led her to establish the Open Door, an after-school program that operates at 16 sites around the county.

The child, too, often needs to hear a parent’s voice. Jay Belsky, an expert on child development and professor at Pennsylvania State University, told the Chicago Tribune in 1988: “The issue is not so much if someone is there when a child gets home from school as whether someone is there psychologically for the child. Does he have someone to call and ask if he needs something? . . . The psychological connection is more important than the physical one,” he said.

The Three O’Clock Syndrome is an outgrowth of the increasing number of “children in self care,” a relatively new term that is replacing “latchkey” to describe children who go home alone or with siblings. National surveys last year indicated that from 2 million to 6 million children under 13 cared for themselves after school or on weekends. And in its “Resource Guide on School-Age Child Care,” the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children says that 18 million to 20 million children will spend “part of their day alone or with school-age siblings” this year.

In a 1989 study, Fernandez found that 59% of the management and non-management employees surveyed said they had a problem handling before- and after-school care and vacation time. Those arrangements have consistently been the third most frequent child-care concern (after day care for sick children and finding time for school conferences) among working parents in three major studies Fernandez has conducted over the last six years.


A single father “all of my life,” Fernandez did some of the studies during his 15 years as an employee of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. He continues to write books on work and family relations and is president of Advanced Research Management, a Philadelphia consulting firm.

Fernandez considers the Three O’Clock Syndrome “absolutely detrimental” to employers. “If you are worried about your child . . . you are not going to concentrate on your work; you’re liable to make mistakes . . . and you could develop health problems” related to stress, he says.

There are ways to ease the Three O’Clock Syndrome, Ginsberg and other child-care experts say.

Employers who limit phone access can relax their policies to allow workers to receive and make necessary calls freely.


Employers should be sympathetic to the needs of their parent workers, scheduling overtime in advance and avoiding meetings late in the day, Ginsberg says.

Companies should support after-school programs, such as YMCAs and Boys’ and Girls’ clubs, so they can expand their services, Ginsberg says.

Companies might also spend money to provide transportation to and from after-school activities.

And, Ginsberg says, after-school hours should be looked upon as a time for enrichment, not just baby-sitting. “There are all kinds of wonderful things that kids can learn,” she says.