- Good childcare is relationship-based, so parents are usually ideally suited to provide the best possible care for infants and young children.
- Mothers often feel a need to return to work very soon after a baby is born without high-quality childcare options available.
- These moms face a dilemma because children do best with consistent, attentive, curious, and loving caregivers, especially in the early years.
- Enlightened public policy includes supports for parents and parenting, access to good quality care, and universal basic income.
Up until two and a half, children do best with loving, reliable, and consistent caregivers. Good care is relationship-based, so in most situations, parents and grandparents are best placed to provide the consistent, interested, and interesting care that babies and young children need, day in and day out. This facilitates secure attachments and gives children the best chance of developing into secure, happily productive, and emotionally resilient adults.
Problematic Public Policy
As a developmental psychologist, parent, and grandparent, I despair over what I see in so many situations, where mothers are expected to return to work as soon as possible after giving birth, and little or no thought is given to paternity leave, much less reasonable and flexible maternity leave. Far too many parents feel they have no choice but to return to work almost immediately and put their child in low-quality daycare; they don’t have the financial resources to cover time off and they can’t begin to afford high-quality care.
Too often, the baby or young child is left in a care setting all day every weekday, often for eight or more hours. Sometimes the care is excellent, but too often, the setting is crowded, noisy, and understaffed—not a good place for cherishing a very young person or nurturing the development of a young child, much less an infant or baby.
I’m an ardent feminist, believing in women’s right to choose how to proceed with their own pregnancies, and in their career development opportunities, including the need to close the gender pay gap. It’s tricky, though, because I am also an advocate for children’s optimal development, and know that children do best with consistent, attentive, curious, and loving caregivers, especially in the early years.
Some families reconcile this dilemma by creating a hybrid approach to parenting, where fathers take half the responsibility for childcare, parental leave, and household management. Other families include grandparents or others on a close and loving childcare team.
In some enlightened jurisdictions, fathers are encouraged to take half of a substantial (e.g., two-year) parenting leave, so that the parents can find a way to flexibly share in the career slowdown necessitated by providing a child with the care and attention they need in the early years. Some employers create baby-friendly settings and situations, where mothers can continue with breastfeeding and giving loving attention to their infants and young children while continuing with their careers simultaneously.
Good child-centered childcare policy is complicated, taking into account the fact that every family, every community, and every situation is different, with its own demands, constraints, and resources. For one example, policy shouldn’t force mothers to get back to work as soon as possible after having a baby, but it shouldn’t discourage that either. Some women are better mothers when they can continue to focus on their careers while participating in raising their children.
Some Good Resources
The two most thoughtful and comprehensive sources I’ve found for research on this topic (and lots more related topics) are the recent book by Jay Belsky and colleagues, The Origins of You, and Dan Keating’s Nature and Nurture in Early Child Development. Thomas Boyce's The Orchid and the Dandelion is another great source for evidence-based insights and recommendations on policies that support best child development practices.
In the final chapter of Imperfect Parenting, I review my recommendations for childcare policies that simultaneously serve the developmental needs of young children and are pro-life in the fullest sense of that idea—policies that support parents and work toward building a strong, caring society that enhances life for each one of us.
What Public Policy Should Include
- Financial and parental career supports. The research on early child development supports ring-fenced, well-paid parental leave, as well as flexible working conditions and hours. These supports should apply to both parents for the first two and a half years after a child is born.
- Community-based parenting supports. Parenting is fraught with challenges in the quickly changing, high-stress world we live in. When parents are supported in learning how children develop, and in making it through the dilemmas successfully, their children are more likely to thrive through childhood and into adulthood, and more likely to succeed at school and beyond. Community-based parenting support can help all parents, across all income brackets, but it’s most urgently needed in high-risk neighborhoods. There are many ways to provide that support, including drop-in centers, social media groups, and easily accessible networks of professionals. School-based or library-based parenting centers can provide welcoming early childhood options and good nutrition, as well as drop-in gathering spots and other parenting support as needed.
- High-quality and accessible childcare options. When paid caregivers are attentive, sensitive, responsive, stimulating, and affectionate (hallmarks of quality daycare), children do better on cognitive and linguistic scores than those in lower quality care, where children are more likely to have social problems, including aggressive and delinquent behavior. Quantity matters too: The more hours a child spends in daycare, the worse their subsequent behavior. Children in settings with fewer other children do better than those in busier settings. (All that being said, although quality and quantity of child care matters, a warm, loving, supportive family makes a much bigger difference to a child’s long-term development.)
- Universal basic income and universal health care. Communities with a more equitable distribution of wealth do better across all measures, including education, health, wealth, longevity, and happiness. Most people are surprised to learn that even the wealthiest among us benefit when each member of our community has a chance to create a good life and has the necessary supports in place when they need them.
By ensuring that each child has a good chance at making a happy, productive life, enlightened childcare policies create a safer and more sustainable world, thereby enhancing life for each one of us.