Quality child care: what’s at stake

Child care in today's economy is a problem with millions of patchwork solutions, many far from ideal. Can we do better for kids and parents?

MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/STAFF
BABY PEYTON IS HELD BY HIS MOTHER AT AN INDOOR PLAY SPACE IN OAK PARK, ILL.

Most of us check the gauges of the economy from time to time to decide how to save, invest, or borrow. Weather forecasts give us clues about how to dress, and traffic updates about what routes to drive or trains to catch. Police reports and real estate transactions indicate how our communities are doing. And there’s a burgeoning market for personal health data that companies such as Nike and Apple have staked out with wearable devices that track everything from heart rates to steps taken to calories burned.

Metrics make us feel as though we understand and control our world. “What’s measured improves,” management guru Peter Drucker declared. Using metrics is better than winging it, even if they are just the latest, technologically improved version of putting a dipstick into an oil reservoir. We understand a slice of life but not life itself. How do we measure the most important things: the health of families, the development of children, the quality of the world we are handing down to the next generation?

In a Monitor cover story, Stephanie Hanes examines the problem of child care in the United States in the 21st century (click here to read it). Here’s the basic issue, which you might be in the thick of: Gender, ethnicity, and almost all economic backgrounds notwithstanding, almost every parent has to work – for financial survival, for purpose, and for protection. With so many marriages still ending in divorce, a career is often a hedge against uncertainty.

But if we are just living for ourselves – within the sometimes interesting, sometimes challenging spans of careers and lifetimes – we are giving short shrift to the future. How we care for, encourage, and educate children is crucial to how civilization goes forward. No matter what challenges adults face in today’s economy, child care amplifies that challenge. Children crave attention. How does that square with a work environment in which men and women are expected to shut out their personal lives for the good of the organization? 

The cost, stress, and missed opportunities from the patchwork of child-care options – a quick drop-off with Mom or a neighbor, a rushed delivery to preschool, long periods when kids are left to their own devices – have consequences for children, parents, and communities. There’s hope, however. Stephanie reports on new approaches that allow children to be near a workplace but also allow mothers and fathers to do their jobs without too much interference. While these are promising innovations, they are only marginal ways so far of solving a society-wide problem.

You might believe that companies could offer parents more flexibility or that governments could do more to help parents cope. You might believe that the decision to have children requires awareness of the complications and responsibilities that come with them. Whatever the case, children arrive and immediately need to be nurtured, taught, encouraged, and corrected. Parents need help so they can be the primary nurturers, teachers, encouragers, and correctors. That’s not just one family’s challenge. The quality of care children get today determines the quality of humanity’s future.

John Yemma can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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