The purpose of this study was to investigate how parents use the GP out-of-hours service. There was a lack of information about how parents managed childhood illness and what strategies they put in place to help them to cope before calling the GP. The investigation of parental perceptions was based on a qualitative design using in-depth interviews of 29 families from a semi-rural location in the south-east of England. All parents said they found dealing with a sick child out-of-hours stressful and were concerned to make the right decision for their child. Furthermore, parents usually employed a reasonable strategy in attempting to manage the child's illness. This study demonstrated that the decision to call the doctor was not taken lightly. Many parents had implemented useful strategies prior to calling the doctor. However, most parents were also aware of their limitations and feared doing the wrong thing. It would seem that on occasion this fear combined with factors such as a lack of social support and loss of parental confidence resulted in calling the doctor out of hours to seek 'peace of mind'. A rethink is needed among health professionals about the 'problem' of out-of-hours calls. GPs could actively seek to empower parents by educating them about minor illness during visits and consultations. It is not enough to offer reassurance to parents that their children are fine. Health visitors and other health professionals who come into contact with young families may help to educate and empower.