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Home care vs. day care: the controversy deepens

By Diane Casselberry ManuelStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1983


It's been called the most inflammatory topic having to do with children today. The issue? Full-time substitute care for infants and toddlers. Although half of all children whose mothers work full time are cared for by a family member or relative, the shift away from in-home care has been dramatic. The number of children enrolled in day-care centers has more than quadrupled in the last 15 years. Centers now care for 15 percent of all children whose mothers work full time. That figure will likely increase as mothers and women of childbearing age continue to enter and reenter the work force.

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But as more women head for the work place and the demand for day-care facilities grows, some professionals are beginning to ask fundamental questions: What are the effects of such care on young children who are separated from their parents for 40 or 50 hours each week? Do parents have all the facts they need to make a decision about whether to place an infant in full-time care?

''There has been a lot of misinformation about day care,'' says one former day-care provider. ''What we hope to be able to do is to alert parents to the fact that the debate is not over and done with by any means.''

In ''The Day Care Decision'' (New York: M. Evans and Co.), to be published in November, authors Bill and Wendy Dreskin argue that scientific investigations of the nature of bonding and of the emotional needs of children - investigations that have become the focus of the day-care debate - are at best limited.

''We still don't have as much hard data as we would like, and that's because it's very difficult to put things like love and affection and a feeling of security under a microscope,'' Bill Dreskin explained in a telephone interview. ''Clinical observations . . . don't lend themselves to a broad application - they don't answer the question about what is the minimum daily requirement of hugs and kisses that a child needs in order to thrive. Science just can't tell us those things.''

Until recently, the Dreskins had run a nonprofit preschool educational program for three- to five-year-olds in northern California. The first three years, they offered only morning programs. The following two years they expanded their programs to include full-time day care. That's when they began to notice changes in the children.

Three-year-olds who had been happy in a morning preschool program couldn't make the switch to spending a full day away from their parents. They began to cry for hours at a time, and either withdrew from their friends or turned into fighters. They refused to take their toys home at night (''What's the use? I'm here more than I'm home''). They dictated poignant pleas for the journals they kept for their parents (''I wish you didn't have to work, Mommy'').

The parents changed, too. They gradually stopped coming to parent meetings, and they no longer checked educational books out of the lending library. Instead of asking questions about what their children were learning, they only wanted to know what time they should drop their children off and pick them up.

As the Dreskins watched attitudes evolve - the change from parents caring about their children's educational development to parents wanting only a custodial arrangement - they realized their own goals weren't being met. Five years after they opened their preschool, they decided to close the doors.

''I'd always wanted to be involved in early childhood education, and the center had been my baby,'' Wendy Dreskin explains. ''But it had become very painful to watch what was happening to the children in our care.''

The Dreskins began to talk with other day-care professionals and to read all the studies they could find about full-time substitute care for young children. Their conclusion? Experts in the field are still deeply divided about the benefits and the potential harm to children of full-time day care.

Their response? Get that message to parents who need to hear it.

''Our feeling is that there's a growing awareness that the movement toward day-care centers and full-time care was a quick but shortsighted attempt to solve the problem (of how to care for children whose mothers work),'' Mr. Dreskin notes. ''It's been a solution which addresses the needs of parents, but not the needs of children.''

Most day-care advocates, of course, argue that what helps parents benefits the entire family.