Government interest in promoting better child care looks, at first glance, like a wonderful idea. We all know that as women increasingly enter the work place and opt for careers outside the home, families are strained and children are given inadequate attention. Surely we can do more to help families stay intact and to raise the next generation, not only with physical health, but with sound values.
Government, we are told, offers the obvious solution— but it is a solution we ought to be wary of. Robert Woodson said of government programs that address other social problems, “The helping hand strikes again.”
We have learned to our sorrow that in such fields as education, health, and welfare benefits, with government help comes government control, and often such control is ham-handed and insensitive. At times, it does more harm than good.
“Experts,” as we have learned from experience of them in primary and secondary schools, are all too likely to think they know better than parents what children need and what values ought to be taught. However, those values are all too likely to be in conflict with the values parents try to teach in the home. The real question is: while respecting parental authority, what would help and support families in the increasingly arduous tasks of caring for their children?
Recent studies show that affordable child care is available. At an Oct. 23 White House conference on child care, First Lady Hillary Clinton claimed the country faces a “silent crisis” because so many parents are unable to find affordable or adequate child care. Pointing to military child care programs run by the Department of Defense, she and the President propose that the military work with civilian child care providers to plan model programs and training. The President has asked the military to research the idea and draw up a report. That is the Clintons' idea of a “partnership” between the national government, state, and county authorities.
But more federal regulation will make it difficult for good private caregivers to continue. Religious centers, informal neighborhood arrangements, and even grandmothers, may not qualify as “government-approved” care givers. For children to be in centers where “Heather has Two Mommies” is all too likely to be the approved approach. Parents would have to battle such lessons at home.
Our real crisis is the denial of the true needs of children: the time and attention of parents. We tend to relieve our guilt by efficiently doling out the time we spend with children, designating it “quality time.” Children do not live efficiently. They need time to discover how things work and who they are. There is no substitute for the interaction of parents with their children when they are young.
The most important aspect of a child's development results not from how many stories they hear or how many activities stimulate their brain, but from long periods of time spent with one or two loving persons with whom the child develops a trusting relationship. A child in daycare is exposed to many handlers because of a high staff turnover. Each caregiver may be attentive and loving (or they may not), but they cannot substitute for the security a child receives through a sustained parental relationship.
The “crisis” is not so much in child care as in the family. Along with all the centrifugal forces pulling the family apart is the tendency in our culture for parents to spend less time with their children. Each member of the family tends to be seen as a unit with an individual agenda instead of one member of a unity of persons sharing a life together.
Before we initiate more regulation of daycare, we need to study exactly what daycare accomplishes. It is a complex question that has not been adequately addressed. It would be unfortunate if we mistook even the best child care as a substitute for the attention that parents give their children. Welfare mothers and at-risk families need reliable daycare. Families that are stable also need, at times, to rely on child care. But as Diane Fisher, a clinical psychologist pointed out recently, the worst-case scenarios should not drive policies that could develop into models for the future for all of us.
Ideally, children are raised not by money, government programs, or villages, but by two loving parents. Parents themselves should contribute to shaping government policies that assist parents in spending more time with their children. There is no better way to ensure the positive development of children and, hence, of our nation's future.
Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington D.C.