A False Dilemma

Four million American babies will be born in 1998, joining their 12 million older preschool brothers and sisters. Recent research in the neurosciences and psychology tells us with ever greater clarity and specificity that nurturing and emotionally satisfying relationships with adult caregivers during the early years of life are of central importance in ensuring that these children develop their potential.

A child’s education begins at day one. What children learn, and the habits of mind on which cognition, emotional well-being, and moral awareness depend, are the product of the thousands of little interactions that children have with the important people in their lives. To an extent that will never again be equaled over the life span, a child’s learning depends critically on human relationships.

That babies are born helpless and dependent and need years of care is not disputed. But how American children are to receive the care they need is a subject of contentious debate. Well over half of mothers are back at work before their child is a year old. The vast majority of fathers haven’t picked up a fair share of the time it takes to run a household and care for the children. Unlike nearly all other industrialized countries, U.S. corporate and government policies are woefully inadequate in addressing the child care needs of families with young children, and millions of children are being put at substantial risk because of inadequacies in the nation’s child care system.

Excellent affordable care is very scarce. The majority of child care workers are poorly trained and poorly paid. Paid parental leave for work is almost nonexistent, and the 12-week unpaid leave afforded by recent legislation does not even apply to most mothers because they work in jobs exempt under the provisions of the law.

PRESIDENT CLINTON has proposed a child care investment package of $21.7 billion over the next five years. If passed, it could make a significant positive impact on the quality of child care programs and help families with their cost. Critics of his proposal say that such assistance will encourage more mothers of young children to go out to work when they should be staying home.

But the battle line is falsely drawn. Public policy and public money can and should support choices in child care. Changes in tax laws to increase credits and refunds to middle- and low-income families with small children will afford opportunity for more parents to stay home longer with young children. But subsidized child care is essential for the millions of poor and near-poor families in which there is a single wage earner or an absolute necessity for two incomes to make ends meet. The special years when children are primed and eager to discover the world around them must not be wasted in front of the television because of harried or indifferent caretakers.

Over the course of human history, the nuclear family has never had sole and total responsibility for the care of children. The isolation experienced by American parents is a peculiarly modern phenomenon that is endangering children’s welfare. Across the country parents and communities are developing cooperative child care arrangements, and some corporations are taking steps to create a more family-friendly environment for workers.

There are many good ideas and models for improving the quality and availability of child care, including parent education. Advocates who value families need to speak out in local forums, at work, to Congress, and to policy makers in support of child care programs and policies that help parents provide the best possible care for their children, whether at home or in day care.

ANN BARNET is a pediatric neurologist and RICHARD BARNET is a writer, teacher, and Sojourners contributing editor. Their book, The Youngest Minds: Parenting and Genes in the Development of Intellect and Emotion, will be published by Simon & Schuster in July.

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