Bringing up Children

Dinner is over at the Morgan household, but the woven placemats, flecked with crumbs of food, have not been cleared. It is hot and mom, Rebecca Morgan, fiddles with the fan in the kitchen to get some air moving. The girls–Abby, 7, and Emily, 4–burst in through the back door, arguing. Emily apparently picked flowers she shouldn’t have and Abby wants to alert dad, Christopher Morgan, the family gardener. Meanwhile, Christopher is calling up a computer program so the girls can work–and, perhaps, let him and Rebecca actually talk.

Like the well-maintained exterior of the family’s white cape-style house in Newton, with tidy plantings of petunias and marigolds leading to the front door, family life looks simpler from the outside. Across the threshold of this and many middle-class homes, there seems never to be enough time, money or energy. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the raising of our kids.

What was routine a generation ago–having and bringing up children–is now a high- pressure lifestyle. Parents today are stretched between workplace demands and the need to be “mom” or “dad,” that central loving figure, role model, secretary, cook, laundry maid, homework tutor, counselor and transportation service. Parents now are more “tag team” than household heads of state, and are often left feeling they are giving their family short shrift.

But more striking than the evolution of home life is that the issue at the heart of the balancing act–child care–has failed to find a political voice.

“Why, if this is such a life and death issue for so many families does it not hit the political radar screen? That’s an issue I am puzzled and fascinated by,” declares Roger Brown, co-founder and chief executive officer of Bright Horizons, a ten-year-old company with 126 daycare centers nationwide, including 27 in Massachusetts.

Pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton says “we are shooting ourselves in the foot” by failing to provide a high-quality system of child care for working parents. Not only do we need to improve the prospects for all children, but he says it’s obvious to him what moms and dads know instinctively: “No parent can pay attention to their job if they are worrying about their babies.”

State Senator David Magnani, D-Framingham, earlier this year filed legislation to create both a state early childhood education board and corresponding local councils that would operate much like public school boards and be charged with administering state child care funding and assessing the needs of parents. The aim, says Magnani, was to better serve the 145,000 children in Massachusetts the state Office for Children estimates are in licensed daycare and to make connections with children who are in unlicensed or informal care. But the bill died before coming to a vote.

Magnani, who recalls several years ago hauling diapers and bottles–and his two children–to the State House when his wife was overseas working, says he is refiling the legislation next session. But, he acknowledges, child care is not an easy issue to get fellow legislators fired up about.

“We are having a tremendous struggle bringing child care to the political forefront,” says Magnani. He says part of the problem is what dogs other children’s issues: Politicians “think of kids’ issues during campaigns and they talk a great deal about them.” But when it comes to taking action, Magnani observes, “people recognize kids are not registered voters.”

A major expense

It’s the old truism: Kids don’t vote. But it’s more complicated than that. Child care has long been something middle-class parents worked out privately. Some, who can afford it, have found good quality care that emphasizes learning. Others with less money have patched together a less reliable system of baby-sitters. Parents have never thought of child care as “an issue.” They may dial up their legislator when the cost of septic tank improvements under Title V runs high, but few think to ask for help paying child care tuition, improving the quality of care or getting the boss to be more understanding on snow days or when junior spikes a fever at noon.

Consider the Morgan family. Christopher Morgan is a 43-year-old social worker and father of Abby, Emily and 21-year-old Samuel, a son from a previous marriage. He has been laid off twice in the past three years, including from one job where Emily was enrolled in on-site daycare, care that became prohibitively expensive when he was no longer an employee.

“I’ve never thought of daycare in political terms, partly because I don’t feel related to a larger body of people,” says Morgan. “But it is a very political issue.”

With a family income of $80,000 a year, the Morgans are squarely positioned in the middle class. With Samuel’s college tuition to pay, child care costs for Emily and after school costs for Abby are a substantial–$15,000 a year–bite out of the family paycheck. Making the budget work was so tough that at one point they considered moving to a less expensive part of the country.

The juggling also put the family under a lot of stress. Rebecca, 43 and a social worker, was working 50 hours a week at a job where the workplace culture made it difficult to take off a snow day or a day when a child was home sick. She wanted to find a way to work fewer hours, while still earning enough to pay child care and family expenses.

“You wouldn’t believe how many hours I spent trying to manipulate my schedule to work the least number of hours and work our budget, be able to pay our bills and save our money” for retirement, says Rebecca. “The problem is we needed my income. So somebody had to work more to pay for daycare.”

Rebecca changed jobs, moving from a hospital to a social work group practice. Although she earns less, she tries to make up the difference by seeing private clients at home, including two nights a week when Christopher watches the children. That has eased some pressure, but the high cost of child care remains.

Child care is expensive. Typical cost for full-time daycare runs $8,000 to $10,000 a year per child. Brown of Bright Horizons, father of three, says at times his daycare bill has topped even his mortgage.

While no one expects every parent of a first-grader to pay the cost of a private education, that is essentially what parents do when they pay for child care. Costs vary among programs. But paying more doesn’t guarantee better care.

A 1995 study of 749 infant, toddler and preschool classrooms showed only 1 in 7 centers provided quality child care that “promotes healthy development and learning.” The study, which showed little difference in fees between low- and high-quality centers, revealed something particularly troubling: Parents had an inability to judge the quality of the child care being provided their child. That’s one reason, researchers concluded, there is little incentive to provide higher quality care at a higher cost. The study, “Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers,” was a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Colorado at Denver, University of California at Los Angeles, the University of North Carolina and Yale University.

Early care and education

There may not be a coherent political debate on child care. But there is increasing awareness among elected officials that middle-class working parents are struggling.

Last year before he was elected Senate President, Thomas Birmingham, D-Chelsea, proposed through the Senate Ways and Means Committee an Early Care and Education program aimed at helping middle-class families–those with incomes up to $51,000 for a family of four–pay for child care.

This was a break from the past. Historically, government has focused its energies on providing child care for families on public assistance or with very low incomes, through AFDC vouchers or through Head Start, initiated in 1967.

Birmingham, who with former Rep. Mark Roosevelt, authored the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, says child care must be a key part of the drive to raise education standards. In addition, he says, if the message of welfare reform is that “work pays,” the legislature needs “to make that a viable option for people.”

In Fiscal Year 1996, the legislature allocated $10 million to help middle-class working parents under the Early Care and Education program. The FY1997 budget raises that to $20 million.

Birmingham says funding the program was a way for legislators “genuflecting to the values of the working poor to put their money where their mouth is.”

Still, only a fraction of those who need help can now get it. To serve all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in the state would cost some $175 million, state estimates show.

And even the people the program is helping by subsidizing daycare costs say it is not enough. Under the program, parents pay for daycare on a sliding scale from $0 to $114 a week per child, depending on family income.

Elisabeth Schaefer, administrator for early learning services at the state Department of Education, says parents are calling to complain that daycare costs are still too steep. The program may get some children from cheaper, unreliable and less stimulating care into high-quality programs. But some say the cost of that leap is too high.

Birmingham says he knows the programs are small and the problem is large: “I wouldn’t pretend these are anything but baby steps.”

On a single salary

The steps do, indeed, seem tiny to Maryse Armand, 31, of Brockton. She is mother to son Mendelson, 31/2, and to daughter Mitshela, 8. Armand, a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company in Canton, earns $34,000 a year.

She is one of the fortunate to get state help paying child care. Still, she says it is hard to come up with the $84 a week that is her share of her son’s child care costs.

“I’m getting good pay, but I get paid bi-weekly,” she says. “On the third week of July, I couldn’t pay daycare. I am living paycheck to paycheck.”

Despite the cost, Armand is pleased with how her son, who has attended the program since April, is learning. “He is so bright,” she says. Education is important to Armand. She wants to do the best for her children. Mitshela attends a Catholic school, which costs only $900 a year, thanks to church and school scholarships. Still, she has a problem familiar to working parents of school-aged children: school ends before work does. As the summer drew to a close, Armand’s chief worry centered on the roughly two-hour gap between when Mitshela’s bus arrives home at 4 p.m. and when she gets home at 6 p.m.

What’s more, because Mitshela just turned 8, she can no longer attend the after-school program at Oak Tree Day School. Armand feels discouraged because she cannot afford even a subsidized after-school program. Paying a baby-sitter $80 to $100 a week is far too expensive. That leaves Armand with a troubling, but likely solution: Let Mitshela stay home alone.

“I don’t want to think about what’s coming up,” Armand says. “I know she will worry me a lot. I work in Canton. She is in Brockton. That is a good 25 minutes driving” in case of an emergency. Armand says politicians “really do need a wake-up call.” Swinging child care on even a middle-class salary, she says, “cannot be done.”

Integrating work and child care

While Armand frets about the physical distance between her and her children and the cost of their care, Tracy Greene, 27, of Lakeville, also the mother of two, is just an elevator ride away from the company-subsidized daycare center at Trust Insurance Company in Taunton.

It is lunch time and Greene, a business development analyst, peeks through a toddler room window to see a teacher rubbing the back of her son, Myles, 3, as he settles down for nap time. A teacher whispers that he’s almost asleep and she chooses not to wake him for a hug and a kiss. She moves down the hall and into the infant room. No luck. Sally, who is 5 months old, is fast asleep with her little white size 01/2 shoes placed at the foot of the crib.

Greene sighs. They’re resting and she can’t play. The timing today is bad, but there is much to envy about Greene’s child care arrangement. Certainly, on-site daycare is not new. But at Trust Insurance Co., it is not simply the physical convenience that has Greene already fretting about the day when her children are too old to attend. It is the culture. The company, which was founded in 1989 and now has nearly 400 employees, seems to understand the stresses of working parents–and wants to help.

Aside from having a top-quality center, the company subsidizes the cost. As a result, employees pay only $75 a week for full-time care for an infant; just $60 a week for a toddler and $50 a week for preschoolers. So while Greene and Armand both have 3-year-old sons in full-time daycare, Greene pays $34 a week less than Armand and about $125 a week less than many parents at private day care centers. Instead of paying as much as $20,000 a year for two children in daycare, Greene pays less than half that: $6,500.

What’s more, the first $5,000 of that is paid with pre-tax dollars in deductions from her paycheck under a program that some, but not all, employers have in place. Greene, who has worked at the company since she graduated from college, says she’s well aware of the financial break she’s getting from her employer.

“If I had to pay outside daycare, having two children would be tough,” says Greene, who with her husband, a gas fitter, makes a family income of $85,000 a year. “Paying like $1,800 a month would be a definite burden.”

The company is also forward-thinking about family issues. If a child gets sick, for example, daycare employees (salaried workers with access to the same health insurance, dental coverage, short and long-term disability, life insurance, stock bonus plan and 401K plan as other employees), call the parent’s boss to explain the parent needs to leave.

“The company is making a conscious effort to support family values,” says Andrea Brandeis, senior vice president of administration. She said company managers are expected to be accommodating of family and child care issues. When one wasn’t, the manager was called on his attitude and Brandeis says he is required to attend bi-weekly “sensitivity training” sessions “until he gets it.”

More pressure on women

Greene can easily afford care for her two children. But for some families, the cost of child care for more than one child is often the impetus for one parent–often mom–to quit work and stay home.

“In Massachusetts you can so easily be priced out of the workforce,” observes Ellen Bankert, associate director of corporate programs at the Boston University Center on Work and Family.

Although many families need two incomes to get by, Bankert sees increasing social pressure on women not to work. With the days now past where women felt compelled to prove themselves as equals in the workplace, Bankert today observes a “new stigma” being pinned on working mothers. She says people now ask: “How come someone else is taking care of your kids?”

The debate over whether moms should work–an issue that enraged many women when one-time gubernatorial candidate John Silber suggested the answer was “no”–still lingers.

“The country is still very ambivalent about this issue,” says Brown of Bright Horizons. “People on the left think child care should be publicly supported, much like public schools. People on the far right feel child care is an incentive for women to be in the workforce and out of the home.”

Rebecca and Christopher Morgan never considered seeing if they could afford to have Rebecca stay home–even though that is what her own mother did. Rebecca says it provides her daughters a positive role model to see her enjoy both work and motherhood. What’s more, she says, professional child care is good for her children.

“I have been glad to have other adults in their lives, to help guide them and reinforce certain behaviors,” says Rebecca. “The daycare we’ve had has been good at civilizing our children. At night, they are cranky and we’re cranky; it can be hard to set limits.”

The question–Who should care for the children?–is a critical one.

“There is a strong unconscious bias that parents ought to take care of their own kids and we ought not to help them,” says pediatrician Brazelton, who until about 15 years ago, said he “pushed my patients pretty hard” insisting women should stay home and raise their children. His “three militant daughters,” now grown, he says, persuaded him to expand his views.

James Peyser, father of two young daughters and executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a market-oriented think tank in Boston, doesn’t expect mothers to stay at home. But he does believe it should be the family–not the government–that handles the raising of young children.

“It is a private matter,” says Peyser. “The state has very little capacity to do anything about it. Families are far more important and should be far more important in the rearing of children.”

What’s more, getting government involved in helping middle-class families pay for child care, he argues, would be “a real trap” in creating a “middle-class entitlement program” and a dangerously open-ended financial commitment from the government.

On the other hand, Nancy Folbre, professor of economics at UMass-Amherst and author of Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint, argues that we all have a stake in making sure children receive quality early care.

“Of course we have a collective interest in child outcomes,” she says. “For one thing, we have a whole social insurance system in which the welfare of the elderly generation depends upon the productivity of the younger generation. That is what Social Security is about: We tax the younger generation to support the older generation. Just from a macroeconomic point of view, the more productive we can raise kids, the better off we are.”

In Folbre’s view,”it’s ridiculous to expect people to handle it on their own.” There are more and more women in the workforce and working parents have fewer relatives close by to rely upon, observes Folbre. “We live in a world where it’s much harder to integrate children with daily life than it used to be. It is a reality. You can’t make that go away by sending it back to the family–whose family?”

Another piece that makes it difficult to sort out this issue is that there’s no agreement today on what we mean by “caring” for a child. Is it enough for a 1- or 2-year-old to hang out at home, go shopping when the parent goes shopping, get regular feedings and diaper changes and go to the playground now and again? Or do we need stimulation particularly suited to bring out a child’s latent abilities or encourage a child at a particular developmental milestone? What about for older children? Is “watching” them enough? Or do we need to engage them?

We live in a culture where even young children are scheduled into all kinds of “enrichment” activities. And while library and store shelves are jammed with books advocating both ends of the spectrum–from raising your infant’s IQ to giving children more time to get bored enough to let their imaginations kick into gear–parents seem stuck. Is professional child care just a poor parent substitute or is it critical early education?

Clark Adams, president of Mulberry Child Care Centers, based in Needham, says professionals in his field constantly battle the perception they are merely a fancy baby-sitting service.

“No one who understands anything about early childhood education thinks of it that way,” says Clark. “But it’s pretty clear the majority of adults think of preschool education as not far removed from baby-sitting. They are dead wrong.”

Peyser of the Pioneer Institute says he’s tired of the emphasis on early childhood certification and the drive among many day care providers to receive national accreditation.

“We make too much of professional credentials and demean the kind of care regular people can provide,” says Peyser. “My neighbor across the street who is caring for my child, if she had to be licensed, I don’t think she would do it. Yet, among other things, [the neighbor] loves my daughter. You cannot professionalize that.”

Nonetheless, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the value of good preschool child care–both for children as individuals and for society.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project is the most touted evidence that quality preschool can have a dramatic impact. The study has tracked–through the age of 27–the lives of 123 African American children living in poverty who, as 3- and 4-year-olds, were randomly assigned to participate in a high quality active learning program or no program at all.

Those given a quality preschool education had higher rates of high school graduation (71 percent vs. 54 percent); fewer arrests (7 percent of the preschool group had five or more arrests compared with 35 percent of those not in a program); earned more money (29 percent of the preschool group earned more than $2,000 a month compared with 7 percent of those not in a program); and females reported fewer out-of-wedlock births (57 percent vs. 83 percent).

A cost-benefit analysis put the average cost of the two-year program at $12,356 per participant and the public economic benefit at $88,433 per participant based on lower schooling costs, increased taxes paid because of higher earnings, savings on welfare assistance, savings to the criminal justice system and savings on in and out-of-court settlements for would-be victims of crime.

Aside from the appeal of making better lives for those most at risk for failure, researchers Lawrence J. Schweinhart and David P. Weikart make a point of saying the study has a broader message: That quality early education experiences affect all children for the rest of their lives.

As well, research on higher-order thinking skills, musical ability, verbal and mathematical skills, for example, are now pointing to earlier ages at which children make key connections. The notion that young children have neurologic “learning windows” that open and close–shutting in some cases by age 4–may still be a matter for researchers to conclusively pin down. But preliminary work does, at the very least, suggest that even babies, toddlers and preschoolers are at critical ages for having important learning experiences.

The public interest in child care

If early learning, as some now suggest, is so critical to future academic and life success, shouldn’t every one of us want all children to have good care?

The question of how we view the public interest in child care–is it education for our future citizens? or babysitting so parents can work?–matters less than how we go about expressing that interest. In some ways, it is a battle of quality vs. quantity. Gov. William Weld now pushes for more daycare slots for those on welfare, but the state payments for those slots were frozen for years.

There is a lot to sort out. Should we set standards, not just for safety and teacher-child ratios, but for quality? At what age do we start having a collective interest in a child’s care? Public interest in cases of abuse or neglect begins even before birth. If there is a case for stopping what will hurt, when is there a case for starting what will benefit and enrich?

Age 6 months? 1 year? 2? 3? 4?

“I’d start a lot earlier than three or four,” asserts Brazelton. “And since nobody can afford the kind of quality day care we need, national and local government should pitch in.”

Is this just utopian thinking–or is it time we got serious?

Senate President Birmingham says legislators are serious about child care. Just not as serious as they are about other things. “It is not as dramatic as what we are doing in education reform,” says Birmingham, who expects slow funding increases in coming years. “Our more gradual approach is something more generally favored by the membership.”

Meet the Author
The issue, though, involves more than money. The state may never have the cash to do the job. But it can set policy. Adams of Mulberry Child Care Centers says the lack of energy around child care issues is a structural problem: There is no teacher’s union, no local school board to make child care grab public attention and a spot on the local news. Sen. Magnani is proposing each community have a child care council, a kind of early childhood board of education. In the end, though, getting child care to matter will take more than some well-crafted initiatives. It may require nothing less than a cultural revolution.

Laura Pappano is a free-lance writer and a visiting scholar at the Henry A. Murray Research Center at Radcliffe College.