Just before the birth of her first child in April, Jennifer Arnold went to her boss with a bold wish list. She wanted to be able to pick and choose her own hours.
It was a radical idea, never tried in the conservative investment firm where Ms. Arnold, of Waukesha, Wisc., works as a marketing specialist. But she knew she wanted to minimize the hours the couple's infant son would spend in day care and maximize the time she and her husband could spend with him at home.
Arnold's request typifies the dreams of a growing number of parents of very young children. In a wide-ranging study of child care released yesterday, researchers uncovered at least two striking findings. The youngest generation of mothers strongly prefer staying at home with their kids. And parents of young children don't necessarily want more help with day care from government or employers. They see the responsibility as their own.
"Parents are saying in every way you can possibly hear that having a parent at home is better for kids," says Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, the nonpartisan public policy organization that made the survey. "It's very important for us to listen to the desires of parents of young kids and to try to craft policies and solutions that mirror these values."
Seventy percent of parents and child advocates surveyed say that having one parent at home is the best child-care arrangement during the earliest years. Among mothers between the ages of 18 and 29, 80 percent prefer to be at home. They also express a deep distrust of day-care centers, viewing them as the option of last resort.
Some family advocates see the findings as evidence of a quiet shift in attitudes among young couples. "Young people have gotten the message about the importance of the first three years," says Ruth Wooden, president of the National Parenting Association in New York.
She also credits the maturing of the women's movement and changes on the part of young fathers, who are taking a "much more participatory interest" in their families than previous generations of fathers.
The study, which also surveyed employers and child advocates, refutes widely held notions that parents of very young children are clamoring for more help from government or employers. Ms. Wadsworth finds an "extraordinary number of parents of young children who believe absolutely first and foremost that the responsibility for raising young children is theirs. It's not the government's, it's not the employer's, it's theirs."
As one measure that parents are acting on their beliefs, 47 percent of those surveyed report that one parent in their family stays at home to care for their children in a typical week. At the same time, they refuse to criticize parents who use day care. They see child care as an important and necessary alternative that should be improved, not abandoned.
Marcy Whitebook, a long-time child-care advocate in Berkeley, Calif., sees two hurdles to progress. Many women, she finds, either cannot afford to quit or do not have jobs that permit them to work part time or leave for a while.
"The good news is that young women are really thinking about what they want for their children," Ms. Whitebook says. "But the bad news is that because we don't have a good child-care system, and because we leave people to fend for themselves about these issues, women aren't asking for help that they really deserve - and that could make their lives and their children's lives better."
While large numbers of working parents say they would use a high-quality on-site child-care center if their employer provided it, it remains a lower workplace priority than healthcare and retirement benefits. Similarly, on the political front, large numbers give higher priority to improving public schools and providing health insurance than to child care.
Sixty percent of parents in the study favor increasing government funding for programs like Head Start. They also recognize the need to tighten the licensing and regulation of child care.
As one encouraging sign, Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection in Minnetonka, Minn., notes that more and more centers, particularly those supported by employers, are accredited. "We have studies showing that quality day care is very good for a child," she says.
At the same time, Ms. Seitel observes a dichotomy between what parents want and what employers need. The demand for employees is so critical, she says, that employers are trying to convince women that they should not quit. Companies are also offering more perks to keep workers.
Yet a willingness to accommodate parents of young kids, she emphasizes, can pay big dividends later. "These women who want to go home now may very well want to come back to the workforce in five years. The company that makes that easy for them will gain, because they will have the experienced workforce they need."
Arnold agrees. Her solution involves flexibility and part time day care. Despite initial skepticism, her employers agreed to let her work in the office from 8:30 to 3:30 Monday through Thursday. They also installed two telephone lines in her house so she can work two more hours at home each day. On Fridays, she telecommutes. "It's so much more productive," she says.
Other solutions center around tax credits. Two-thirds of parents favor giving a much bigger tax break to parents who stay home to care for their children.
"As a society," says Seitel, " we must respect the fact that raising children is the most important thing we have to do."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society