Roundtable: Infant Care and Child Development

Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Roundtable: Infant Care and Child Development


Women have always worked and have therefore always had to find ways to share child care.

The Cecil and Ida Green Center for the Study of Science and Society at the University of Texas at Dallas sponsored a symposium on infant care and child development in March 1997. The invited participants spent two days reviewing what is known about the effects of child care on human development and analyzing how well public policies mesh with the science. The final activity of the symposium was a public panel discussion at which several of the symposium participants tried to sum up what was said during the symposium, with particular emphasis on the policy implications. The following is an edited version of the panel discussion.

The panelists were Eleanor Maccoby, Department of Psychology at Stanford University, who gave a public lecture that was the starting point for the symposium discussion; Frank Furstenberg, Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; Sandra Hofferth, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan; Aletha Huston, Department of Human Development at the University of Texas at Austin; Judith Miller Jones, National Health Policy Forum in Washington, D.C.; and Sheila Kamerman, School of Social Work at Columbia University. Kevin Finneran moderated the discussion.

The other symposium participants were Bert S. Moore, School of Human Development at the University of Texas at Dallas; Rebecca Kilburn, RAND Corporation; Ray Marshall, L.B.J. School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas; Stephen Seligman, Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; Margaret Tresch Owen, School of Human Development at the University of Texas at Dallas; and Deborah Lowe Vandell, Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin.

Maccoby: This is obviously a time of very rapid social change with respect to the care of children, so it is useful to establish some historical perspective. It is clear enough that infants and toddlers have always been cared for almost exclusively by women but not necessarily by their mothers. Women have always worked - tending crops or livestock, for example - and have therefore always had to find ways to share child care. Grandmothers, sisters-in-law, older daughters, and neighbors have always played a role. Also, much of the work that mothers did when they were living in agricultural societies could be done with the child present. With urbanization, there was an increased likelihood that the husband would commute to work and the wife would stay home with the children, but that arrangement was far from universal because many women did work. Today, more than half of the mothers who have children under the age of a year are in the labor force. Where can they find the child care that they need? Relatives are far less likely to live nearby. In today's small families, there is rarely an older daughter to take care of the young, and when there is, she is likely to be in school. It is obvious, then, that more and more working parents are relying on paid out-of-home help, such as a formal daycare center or a neighbor woman who has a young child herself and will take in one or two others.

A recent development is the change in welfare policy that will require about 3 million women now on welfare to find jobs. Roughly half of these women have children under the age of 3 and will need daycare for their children. That care will be expensive and hard to find.

Finneran: Aletha Huston is going to talk a little bit about what we have learned about early childhood development and how it affects what we want to do with policy.

Huston: Researchers love to quote William James's comment that the 6-month-old infant is a source of buzzing confusion because the comment reflects a long-held misperception that infants don't really know much. Some people think they can't even see or hear for a period after birth. In the past 20 to 30 years, we have had a revolution in understanding of infant development. …

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