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Who Minds the Children? Parental Childcare Choices

When it comes to childcare, our culture puts parents in a bind.

The landscape of childcare in the U.S. has changed markedly over the past few decades. As recently as 1975, more than half of U.S. children had a stay-at-home parent (commonly the mother). By 2012, this number was less than one in three, as parents of infants and young children have become increasingly reliant on various forms of nonparental childcare.

The growing prevalence of nonparental care is in part a result of women’s increased workforce participation. In the past, women tended to leave the workforce upon their marriage or the birth of their first child and stay at home until their children were nearly grown. This is no longer the norm. By 2008, 60 percent of mothers with children under the age of six were in the labor force, compared to 33 percent in 1975. By 2017, the employment rate for women with children under six years old was 65 percent, and the rate for women with children under three years old was 63 percent. Today, employment is normative for all U.S. parents, regardless of gender or family structure.

Yet, while working parents are the current cultural norm, many mothers still choose (or are otherwise compelled by circumstance) to stay at home with their infants and young children. (In the U.S. today, many more women than men interrupt their careers to focus on parenting). In 2016, 27 percent of U.S. mothers of children under 18 years old stayed out of the paid labor force and home with their kids.

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Childcare choices are among the most important decisions parents are called to make on behalf of themselves and their children. Researchers have long sought to identify the key conditions and considerations that shape these decisions. In general, research has pointed out that parents with lower income, less education, and larger families tend to rely less on formal nonparental childcare and more on stay-at-home parenting or informal relative care.

Not surprisingly, research has found that wealthy, highly educated, smaller families are more likely to choose higher quality center care and select a childcare arrangement based on quality rather than on practical concerns. For example, one review of the literature (2013) found that, “family income has been positively associated with parents’ endorsement of quality as compared to practical features (e.g. cost, location) as top priorities.”

Parental priorities, however, are not shaped solely by family demographics. Parents’ personal preferences, values, attitudes, and goals also influence their childcare decisions. For example, research has found that mothers who held more traditional family values tended to prefer home-based or relative care for their children, while more egalitarian mothers tended toward choosing center care.

Using data on 4,570 participants in the National Household Education Survey of Early Childhood Program Participation of 2005, researchers found that, “learning-focused” parents were more likely to choose center-based care than “practicality-focused” parents (who preferred home-based care) even after controlling for socio-demographic factors.

For some parents, particularly women—who were traditionally expected to sacrifice a career for full-time parenting—the decision to use nonparental care may be motivated by the desire for enrichment and personal development. Mothers may feel that staying at home full time would become lonely and depressing. This is particularly true for women with high levels of education, whose work is typically more satisfying and financially rewarding.

Research suggests that many parents who choose nonparental center care for their children believe it will help their child’s learning, social development, friendships, language skills, readiness for kindergarten, and future schooling. For example, research has found that mothers who put greater value on socialization are more likely to use center-based childcare than mothers who put greater value on care location and reliability. Likewise, of course, some parents who elect to raise their children solely at home may also be motivated by their personal beliefs about proper parenting or their religious and cultural traditions.

By now it is clear that childcare decisions, while personal, are multi-determined, and embedded inside a larger, more complex ecological context. An influential 2006 review of the literature on parental choice of childcare concluded that the evidence favored viewing this process as involving parental “accommodations” to work and family demands, socio-cultural expectations, available information, and financial resources.

More recently (2014) researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample of 10,700 children from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), assessing predictors of home and center-based care. They found that family factors such as income and education, along with cultural factors such as ethnicity and immigration status, child characteristics, and contextual factors such as childcare availability were all involved in predicting families’ childcare decisions.

As the above discussion makes clear, myriad factors interact to shape parental childcare decisions. Yet one overriding parental concern is threaded through the literature: childcare cost. The price of nonparental care arrangements factors heavily into most families’ employment and childcare decisions. Research has demonstrated quite robustly that, “families’ child care choices reflect the options they perceive to be affordable.” In fact, cost is the most commonly reported obstacle for families seeking nonparental childcare.

This is not surprising. For most, maintaining a middle-class lifestyle in the U.S. currently requires dual incomes. Thus, families may feel pressured to place their children in nonparental care in order to keep both parents employed. At the same time, nonparental childcare in the U.S.—particularly formal, center-based care of high quality—the kind associated with developmental gains for children—is pricy. The average cost of keeping an infant in center-based care is higher than college tuition in most states.

In other words, our culture—ostensibly steeped in so-called "family values"—in effect requires both parents to work while failing to provide them with affordable, high-quality childcare solutions. With childcare (as with healthcare and higher education), Americans pay much more for lesser quality services than people in the rest of the developed world. We may want to ask ourselves (and our political representatives) whether and how this state of affairs is justified.

*The full version of this article was recently published in the journal, Child Care in Practice, DOI: 10.1080/13575279.2020.1765147

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