Why Child Care is NOT a Substitute for Motherhood

Or How Does Early Education Get Some Respect?!

In her recent article for the New York Times, Why the U.S. Has Long Resisted Universal Child Care, Claire Cain Miller discusses motherhood and professional child care as if they are equivalent.

They are not.

Most child care services have trained professionals. They make daily contributions to a child’s learning above and beyond the scope of what occurs naturally in the home.

These professionals create learning experiences with intentionality — to nurture growth, to help children resolve working theories, to build resilience and a sense of self. It’s important work, best handled by professionals.  And so just as in K-12, teachers in early childhood education have an enormous amount to offer.

Furthermore, early educators interact with children at a crucial age, when the brain is in a developing mode. This means they have a profound impact on nurturing learning dispositions that last a lifetime.

And so yes, motherhood is important, and having a mother at home has clear value. But a well rounded early education should also include time with trained educators.

 The Research

Not only should child care be considered part of a child’s education, it is arguably the most crucial part.  It occurs during the brain’s most fertile and active time.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that research shows that children who participate in quality child care programs are more school ready and have higher cognitive abilities than children who begin formal education in kindergarten.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that high quality child care enhances brain growth.  Furthermore, it decreases the need for special education services later in life. Even high school graduation rates are connected to children who experienced quality childcare.

The Academy continues that, “All of a child’s early experiences, whether at home, in child care, or in other preschool settings are educational… When care is consistent, emotionally supportive, and appropriate to the child’s age, development, and temperament, there is a positive effect on children and families.”

Child care is an essential part of a child’s educational journey, not an alternative to being at home with a mother.

The Role of Mother

While mothers play a role, for instance in language saturation, there’s so many other opportunities where trained educators can impact a child’s development. The perception that mothering and child care are mutually exclusive undermines the importance of early childhood education and reduces it to a moral argument for “mother knows best.”

Miller explains that resistance to funding universal childcare has never been about economics, but more so the “sanctity of motherhood,” making the issue symbolic vs. realistic. However, a more important argument to highlight is that early childhood education is beneficial to children, not in place of a mother, but with parents working alongside quality preschools and child care centers.

And while there are many benefits to women in the workforce in terms of empowerment, equity, and a healthy economy, there are also countless benefits to society when children attend quality child care centers.

This outdated view of motherhood is equally matched by the outdated treatment of child care centers as babysitters.

Quality Child Care

Parents often choose daycare facilities based on location, price and referrals. Rarely do parents carefully examine daycare curriculum or philosophy with a critical eye. The quality checklist distributed by the American Association of Pediatrics mentions cleanliness, food quality, and flexibility in hours.

Although physical space is important, quality in early childhood education depends on the number and variation of experiences offered. Quality daycare centers provide children with child-led opportunities, challenging and open-ended play, and clear and frequent communication between teachers and parents. These quality centers offer children the opportunity to assign meaning to loose parts in play, develop resilience and responsibility, and negotiate social situations.

Unfortunately, many centers reduce their evaluation to a set of performance standards geared for k-12 schools. These checklists are often tied to funding and leave child care centers with no choice but to teach and evaluate children academically based on criteria that is not age appropriate.

Communicating Educational Value

Centers are partially to blame for  perception of child care and motherhood as alternatives. They communicate like babysitters, not sharing the educational mission behind the play and other good work they do. Assessments are boring,  not read by parents, not even understood.

And so communications to parents need to meet two hurdles:

  1. Connect to learning
  2. Be readable

One way to achieve this is with learning stories.  Developed in New Zealand, learning stories are real learning events, told in engaging ways and analyzed by early childhood professionals. Each anecdote offers the educator a chance to connect learning to a center’s curriculum and philosophy. In this way, parents in New Zealand understand that childcare is essential in the development of young children.

Unlike checklists that record deficit, learning stories are personal and highlight development. Each story is an opportunity to engage with parents as partners. Inherent in this communication is the belief that children greatly benefit from learning experiences outside their home, with a variety of children and educators. Also, while “mother knows best,” there are other contributions that can be made to the development of her young child.

As the African adage says, “it takes a village” to raise a child. It is important to view child care as a partner in a child’s development versus a parental placeholder. Also, it is time for the United States to see the benefits of early childhood education on its most valuable asset: children.