What If Quality Child Care Were Affordable and Accessible for All Working Parents
By Ellen Galinsky
There is both something sad and something hopeful in addressing this question, because it has been asked for the past 30 to 40 years. We choose to look at it hopefully, because IF all of us made an effort, large or small, to improve the quality of early childhood experiences available to children, things will change.
Before we begin, please note that rather than talking about child care, we talk about early education and care. It is only in our minds that care and education are separate. Children need care in order to learn and they are learning from their experiences, wherever they are—with their families or childcare providers and teachers home-based settings, in preschools, Head Start, and centers.
So why should we care? And why should we take action?
Because we are maintaining the engagement in learning children are born with.
When you spend time just watching young children, you will notice how driven children are to learn. Watch them learn to stand up, fall down, and then try again and again. Watch them try to turn nonsensical babbles into words that they repeat again and again. And listen to their questions “why, why, why?” We can either maintain or further children’s drive to learn or we can dampen it by what we (parents/teachers) say and do. If we acknowledge their drive to stand up—“You are working SO HARD to learn to stand up”— we are maintaining their learning. If we extend their language—“You are pointing at the big furry dog and his name is Oso”—we are furthering their learning. And if we answer their questions—“You are interested in ladybugs so let’s find a book with lady bugs in it”—we are furthering their learning. We are setting the stage for a lifetime of learning.
Because we are removing the obstacles that parents face in working.
In the United States today, most parents of young children have jobs. Unfortunately, far too many of us struggle to find early childhood care and education that meets our needs and fits our budgets. Research at the Families and Work Institute shows that such parents are more likely to miss work or to be distracted while at work. When they have good arrangements, they are more loyal, more committed, more engaged at work. They are also less likely to quit. Indeed, employers that have helped employees find stable and good early childhood arrangements find there is a return on this investment.
Because we are strengthening our future workforce.
Research on brain development reveals that in the early years, the architecture of the brain is being formed. One can think of it as a foundation for later life and school success. Thus, while it is always possible to help children in their later years, it is better to give children a solid foundation for the future—in other words, to give them the right start.
The evidence of these benefits is particularly strong for children from very low-income families, where several well-designed longitudinal studies of model programs reveal a strong societal return on investment in reduced grade retention, lower drop out rates, higher graduation rates, less special education, and higher rates of employment, marriage, and home ownership.
In the end, it is more than care and education outside the family.
Not surprisingly, studies show that parents are first and foremost in their children’s lives, and employers need to continue to find ways to provide work supports such as workplace flexibility so that working parents can spend time with and be with their children.
Ellen Galinsky is the president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute (FWI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that studies the changing workforce, the changing workplace, the changing family, and the changing community. Familiesandwork.org.