This theoretical paper explores a lexicograpbic model of child care choice and argues that this model is better suited to analyzing parental demand for child care than a neoclassical choice model. The focus in a lexicographic approach is the process of decision making itself. The model accommodates multiple, often noneconomic, criteria-based choices and does not require that the decision maker consider an exhaustive set of criteria as does a hedonic approach. And, it can accommodate a limited choice set where limitations may be set by both decision maker and that decision maker's socioeconomic environment.
In keeping with much of the existing literature [Walker 1991; Blau 1991a; 1991b; Sonenstein 19911, it is assumed that decisions are made based on attributes of care, rather than on type of facility. Attributes that parents consider often do not coincide with those determined to be of highest priority by child development experts [Blau 1991a; Kisker and Maynard 1991; Waite, Leibowitz, and Witsberger 1991]. Rather than focusing on structural attributes such as staff-child ratios, parents frequently appear to focus on religious, nurturing, or educational environment features.
Often this gap between expert opinion and parental choice is viewed as the result of the chooser's ignorance of what constitutes quality care. While it may be true that parents often lack information, as well as the resources necessary to purchase optimal care, it is also likely that their choices reflect individual and cultural values. In addition, the set of choices available to parents differs depending on a variety of factors including income and location.
In the model presented here, parents prioritize attributes of care that they find relevant. Having prioritized attributes, parents make their decisions regarding child care by evaluating possible arrangements based on one attribute at a time, starting with the highest ranked. Arrangements are compared across the highest and each successively lower ranked attribute, and those that do not match the standard are rejected until only one option remains. The decision maker will not be indifferent between any of his or her arrangement options, as different attribute orderings make for different choices.
This approach does not require the simultaneous processing of large amounts of information by the decision maker, as attributes are considered sequentially. The advantage is that many more attributes may be considered without requiring extraordinary assumptions about parental information processing capacity. Again, the lexicograpbic approach does not require an exhaustive list of attributes but has the flexibility to accommodate whatever number of attributes are of interest to the decision maker.
More empirical research based on data reflecting parental values, in addition to those of child development experts, is necessary before conclusions can be drawn about parental decision making and whether or not the model presented here accurately reflects that process. This paper is an attempt to provide an alternative model for future research that will focus on parental priorities and the process that transforms these priorities into the final child care choice.
The Child Care Industry
The child care industry is made up of a variety of types of facilities, some regulated, some not. Parents may choose a relative (if one is available), a nonrelative unregulated family provider, a regulated family day care home, a nonrelative caretaker in the child's home, or care in a public or private child care center. These types of nonparental child care vary by cost, educational background of the provider, child-staff ratios, reliability of the service, and other attributes. Parental care is also an option for some, as parents may opt out of the labor force to care for their own children. Some may be able to care for their children while on the job, and flexible scheduling may allow dual parent families to split the child care responsibilities. …