Being a parent in a sluggish economy is tough. Raising kids is a demanding job on it’s own and adding money stress to the mix often makes things worse. It’s hard, but like it or not, these are the financial realities many parents are facing today.
To help make ends meet, more and more families are becoming dual-income households. Studies show that 80 percent of children have parents who both work full-time in the first year of life.
But that extra paycheck may come at a price. For every minute mom and dad spends at work, they need someone else to watch the children. For millions of American this involves placing their infant child in childcare, which often stirs up feelings of anxiety and guilt in parents. It’s a hard choice, but what effects does being in childcare really have on the child’s development? For decades, these questions have disturbed and even panicked parents. Fortunately there are experts who can help make that decision less stressful.
“Parents looking for clear information on how childcare affects children are given a bewilderingly diverse set of conclusions,” says Kevin Nugent, PhD, founder and Director of the Brazelton Institute at Children’s, a research and training organization dedicated to studying the development of newborns and young children. “But it’s not all bad news.”
To illustrate his point, Nugent points to research from the National Institute of Child Health and Development that shows in some cases lots of hours spent in group-based care can lead to slightly more aggressive and disobedient behavior down the road. But at the same time studies on childcare also show that kids who spent time in group-care environments as infants often show improved language and cognitive skills as toddlers. Overall, children who spend time in child-care don’t suffer from the experience, but the exact effects of the experience aren’t overly clear
So, for parents making a decision about childcare, the scientific evidence can be both frightening and reassuring.
“I really sympathize with these parents as they are often trying to make these difficult decisions on their own, often with little reliable information or guidance to help them out,” Nugent says. “I like to reassure them that while the quality of childcare is important and selecting the best one is critical for the child’s happiness and well-being, but research shows that their own relationship with their child is a far stronger influence on their child’s mental and social development than the childcare experience, no matter how much time they spend there. This is true whether their child is cared for at a childcare center, at a family daycare home, or in some other setting.”
So while the knowledge that parental interaction is more important than childcare interaction is good news, Parents still need guidance and support in their efforts to choose a childcare setting that will work for their child and for them.
If, when and which kind of childcare is right is going to vary from child to child and from family to family, but there is at least one universal truth all the research supports: the better the care provided in a childcare, the better effect it will have on development.
“One thing we know for sure is the type of childcare a child receives is vital to healthy development,” Nugent says. “And it’s not just the kind of care a child receives that can effect development, but also the timing – when the child enters substitute care and how long he remains in child care all play a part. The time between birth and two years old is a crucial time for development, and if a majority of that time is spent in daycare it’s safe to assume it will have some impact on who the child grows to be, both good and bad.”
A good daycare curriculum is needed for improved development, and the best are based on the idea that kids of every age can learn language, math, science and social skills that will prepare them for school. In general, a good curriculum also aims at fostering the learning and all-round development of children with different backgrounds and levels of ability, including those with special educational needs and disabilities.
When shopping for childcare, here are few points to keep in mind:
• Give yourself plenty of time to choose
• Ask other parents you trust for recommendations
• Think about your child’s temperament, personality and interests – what environment will work for him or her?
It’s also important for parents to realize that while one kind of setting might suit one child, the same setting may be inappropriate for another. Parents must take their child’s personality or temperament into consideration when visiting potential centers. In fact, “Will MY child be happy in this place?” could be the most important consideration for parents as they begin to look for a good childcare setting.
And while childcare’s curriculum is key, it’s important to remember that any educational philosophy is only as good as the learning environment and skills of the people providing it. When visiting potential daycares, pay attention to the space and watch how the children and staff interact. The hallmark of good childcare is a welcoming space maintained by adults who foster each child’s enthusiasm for learning, exploration and the development of imagination. Other things to watch for include:
• Does the childcare setting have a warm welcoming atmosphere?
• Is it clean, light, well ventilated and big enough for children to be active indoors and outdoors?
• Are there places where the children can rest?
• Are the toys sufficiently varied (do they differ in size, texture, color and shape)?
• Do the children look happy?
• Is the teacher to child ratio small enough so caregivers have enough time to interact with all the children?
• Are there plenty of children of your child’s age?
• Is it licensed?
• How does the staff manage behavioral problems and discipline?
In the coming months Thriving will check back in with Doctor Nugent to explore other ways group childcare can affect development. Topics will include daycare’s role in language development, fostering an early love of learning and improving social interactions for children with unique medical, educational and behavioral needs.