Academic journal article The Future of Children

Child Care and Our Youngest Children. (Caring for Infants and Toddlers)

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Child Care and Our Youngest Children. (Caring for Infants and Toddlers)

Article excerpt


Studies of child development confirm that experiences with people mold an infant's mind and personality. Caregiving is, therefore, central to development, whether the caregiver is a parent, a grandmother, or a teacher in a child care center. This article uses data from new, national studies of families to examine the state of child care for infants and toddlers. The story it tells is complex, as the authors outline the overlapping impacts that diverse child care settings and home situations have on children.

* Early exposure to child care can foster children's learning and enhance their lives, or it can leave them at risk for troubled relationships. The outcome that results depends largely on the quality of the child care setting.

* Responsive caregivers who surround children with language, warmth, and chances to learn are the key to good outcomes. Other quality attributes (like training and staff-to-child ratios) matter because they foster positive caregiving.

* Diversity and variability are hallmarks of the American child care supply. Both "wonderful and woeful" care can be found in all types of child care but, overall, settings where quality is compromised are distressingly common.

* Children whose families are not buoyed by good incomes or government supports are the group most often exposed to poor-quality care.

Given this balanced but troubling look at the status of child care for infants and toddlers, the authors conclude that there is a mismatch between the rhetoric of parental choice and the realities facing parents of young children in the United States. They call on communities, businesses, foundations, and government to play a larger role in helping parents secure good care for their infants and toddlers.

The topic of care for infants and toddlers cuts to the heart of conceptions of parental roles and responsibilities. Parents seeking a balance between providing economic resources for their families and providing nurturance for their children face difficult and, for many, constrained choices. Should they forego income so one parent can stay at home full time with a young child? Should they arrange their jobs so that each parent can combine employment and child care without relying on others? Should they combine employment with nonparental child care? Different parents face these decisions with differing resources, values, and available options. They nevertheless share a concern for the well-being of their children, and many experience anxiety and uncertainty as they begin to juggle their roles as workers and as parents of a new baby.

The vast majority of children under age three with working parents now spend substantial time in nonparental child care. This fact of contemporary life represents a dramatic reapportioning of the care of young children from parents to others, starting in the first few months of life. As a result, child care environments now constitute a central context for early development. They are the settings in which most children first learn to interact with other children and with adults other than their parents; and where they receive or miss out on crucial inputs for the vast store of early learning described in the article by Thompson in this journal issue. Under the best of circumstances, child care can also serve as a link between families and other services (for example, health care, early screening for developmental problems, and nutrition benefits) that promote healthy early development. Yet, the opportunity that child care affords to support parents as they raise their children, and to support young children's development during the earliest years of life, is too often squandered.

This article first summarizes what is known about infants' and toddlers' exposure to child care. It then turns to the question, "What is at stake?" by drawing upon new insights about how young children are affected by child care. …

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