Dr. Penelope Leach, author of the well known book Your Baby & Child, analyzes the state of childcare on both sides of the Atlantic in her newest book, Child Care Today. Dr. Leach, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, talks to Highlights® consulting editor Dr. Istar Schwager about the benefits of different types of care and why parents need not feel guilty about using childcare.
Highlights: What inspired you to write Child Care Today?
Dr. Penelope Leach: Childcare is the elephant in the living room. It's a major problem, but it's hardly ever talked about today. Children need care 24 hours a day, yet parents need to work.
In my research study (Families, Children, and Child Care), I interviewed 1,200 mothers and fathers about the challenges they face. I wrote Child Care Today to address what I learned from that study and from many others. It's a comprehensive book because it's aimed at policymakers and politicians as well as parents who need to use childcare.
Highlights: You say in your book that "Is childcare bad for children?" is the wrong question. What is the question we should ask?
Dr. Penelope Leach: The question we should ask is "How can we make childcare, in the broadest sense, good for children?" I'm not only thinking of daycare but [also] the whole parcel of how children are cared for in modern societies, including after school, before school, and vacation care.
We are very quick to criticize parents and social services when there's a tragedy caused by lack of appropriate supervision. However, we don't say how parents should manage day-to-day. We believe that there should be someone to take care of children when they come home at 3:00, but most parents work a full day, often with a commute as well. We can't be in two places at the same time.
Highlights: What constitutes good-quality childcare? What is most important?
Dr. Penelope Leach: Individual families must come to their own decisions based on their specific needs, so one formula doesn't necessarily work for everyone. However, that being said, research studies find that for infants under 18 months, the most important factor is a high ratio of adults to children. No matter how good the caregiver is, there's no way to care for several children at once. Only two babies fit on a lap. That's the starting point for infants.
For children 18 months or older, who the caregiver is becomes more important than how many children there are. Having a qualified person with a group of eight may be better than a less qualified person with a smaller ratio.
Highlights: Is one type of childcare better than another?
Dr. Penelope Leach: There are pluses and minuses to each type of care. Care by grandparents, which is excellent for babies, is not so good for somewhat older children. By the time you're two or three years old, being with a loving, caring, person may not be enough. Children can be isolated with one adult. In group care, somebody is planning and thinking about engaging activities suited to the children's developmental stage.
Once a child is running about and talking a bit, he can benefit from being with other children. We've underestimated the importance of peers and how scarce they are in many families and neighborhoods. In the last decade, we've learned that young children need friends. Spending time in a consistent group provides children the opportunity to form friendships.
But to be effective, childcare centers need to create a variety of experiences for children. If the children aren't going outside much but spend every day in the same big room playing with the same toys, it can be limiting.
Family daycare providers typically care for fewer children at a time and there are advantages for a child in being with children of different ages. They may not have as many toys as childcare centers, but they probably will take children out and go to the market. They too can provide a rich variety of experiences for the children in their care. But in every type of setting, we need qualified people.
Highlights: What words of advice do you have for parents who may feel guilty putting their children in childcare?
Dr. Penelope Leach: Firstly, guilt is going to make things worse for you and isn't going to help your child. This really is an issue where it's usually better for a child if the parent can do what she prefers. Research tells us that about a third of women want to stay home with their children, a third of them want a career, and a third want both.
If you are someone who wants to be at home, you will do very well. However, if you want to be out working, you have a responsibility to find good care. The idea that a mother's care is the gold standard is not accurate. If you don't enjoy it, you won't do it well. My answer is that it's not selfish to arrange things the way you want them, because it benefits you and your children. Enthusiastic care is the best.
It's hardest for the group that wants to work and spend time with their children. It ought to be more possible to work from home. Many parents could be doing three days a week of work at home, and there are all kinds of possibilities that we haven't addressed.
Parents find it cheering to know that whatever form of childcare they use, they need not fear that the child may be more attached to the caregiver than the parent. Once the attachment to the parent is made, it is enduring. For the child, there's no doubt about who is the parent.
Highlights: How do economic factors impact childcare decisions?
Dr. Penelope Leach: There are huge differences in families where there are two parents involved. If the mother is working, it's unfair that often it's expected that her salary will be the one to pay for the childcare instead of looking at it as a family decision.
The mothers who choose to work while their children are young often say that while they are not making any money because they must pay for childcare, they are guarding their careers and helping to secure their own and their family's financial futures.
Highlights: How do a child's personality and a family's specific needs influence the choice of care?
Dr. Penelope Leach: It's an interesting question. We need more research. Gender and a child's personality do seem to make a difference, but we don't fully understand how. Some studies say that a mother is more likely to stay at home with a son than a daughter and fathers are more likely to stay at home with sons.
Some parents commented that they were able to go back to work because a child was easygoing and didn't cry. We don't really know if this is a factor, but it does suggest that this made the return to work easier.
And parents of children with special needs have additional challenges because there are so few caregivers who are able to care for children with special needs.
Highlights: You describe in your book how other countries handle childcare. What have you learned?
Dr. Penelope Leach: Every country is doing some things well and others not so well. We need to look at how other countries are managing so we can learn from one another. When I tell U.S. moms about parental leave in England, they are surprised to learn that mothers are entitled to a year's job protected leave, nine months of it with pay of about $130 a week. It doesn't mean that everyone has to take that, but it is available.
Highlights: Have you seen progress in how childcare is addressed?
Dr. Penelope Leach: There's some progress, but not as much as we would like. We still refer to "maternity leave" rather than "parental leave." In Europe and the U.K., corporations avoid hiring and promoting women of childbearing age because of the leave policies. In Europe, the practice of refusing to hire women because of the parental-leave policy amounts to a new glass ceiling. That doesn't happen in the U.S. because there's so little leave.
U.S. corporations lose a lot of women from the workforce. This is unfortunate, because it's been found that giving maternity leave and supporting quality childcare buys loyalty to the corporation. I want governments to see that investing in childcare will benefit everyone in the long run.
Highlights: How do you feel about the quality of care in the U.S.?
Dr. Penelope Leach: Consistency contributes to quality, and retention of childcare employees is essential. In the U.S., too many young children don't have the same teacher for even a year. This makes the connection between child and caregiver tenuous and undermines the child's sense of security. If we talk about childcare as something we value, then why are childcare workers so badly paid? When childcare workers are paid less than housekeepers, they don't stay.
Highlights: What would you like to see happen in the U.S.?
Dr. Penelope Leach: I'd like to see another White House conference that addresses childcare. The previous conference focused on the importance of early care. The time is ripe for another look at this issue.
I can't help wondering what parents are going to do in the current economic situation. Are parents going to take on more work? Will family daycare standards go down? I was surprised to learn that there's a lot of unregulated family daycare in the U.S.
Highlights: In analyzing childcare in different countries, are there any models that you feel are especially successful?
Dr. Penelope Leach: If you look at countries in continental Europe, parental leave is taken for granted in the first year. It's rare for a child younger than a year old to be in childcare. Giving parents time with their children during that first year frees up government resources, which can then be put into good-quality care for older children. In Sweden, the care is fantastically good.
Highlights: What can parents do to feel more empowered? How can we "get it right for everyone"?
Dr. Penelope Leach: Parents need to support one another. Childcare is everyone's responsibility, and we need to realize that we're all in this together. Policymakers are parents. However, because they have more options, they may not experience the same childcare conflicts affecting ordinary parents. One thing we can do is bring parenting issues to the forefront of the national dialogue. We all need to address ways to balance the relationship between family and work.