Child care report challenges basic assumptions

April 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Experts, politicians and Rush Limbaugh may debate about family values and what's good for children, but parents who put their kids in day care have a pretty solid set of undebatable expectations.

They want their kids to be in a safe place with a warm, attentive care giver who can communicate with them about their children. And whatever other differences there are among Americans, their hopes for their children converge.

"There is an amazing consensus on what quality is," said Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families and Work Institute in New York and one of the authors of a new study of home-based child care. "It cuts across all ethnic and income lines."

Ms. Galinksy and her colleagues, Carollee Howes, Susan Kontos and Marybeth Shinn, studied in-home child-care arrangements in communities in Southern California, Texas and North Carolina.

The arrangements included care offered in the homes of nonfamily providers, the most prevalent form of care for children under 5, and care offered by relatives. A third of families with a working mother use in-home care; 13 percent of in-home providers are related to their charges.

Parents may find some comfort in leaving their children with a relative, but the researchers found that a familial tie wasn't necessarily the best predictor for good child care.

"It was surprising," Ms. Galinsky said. "Everyone thinks that relatives want to take care of kids and that the kids will bond with their relatives."

The study found, however, that children did not seem more attached to relatives than to nonfamily providers. The report notes that two-thirds of the relatives providing child care live in poverty, and thus "live the stressed, socially isolated lives poverty brings." Most are helping out a family member and don't see themselves as career baby sitters.

Yet people who provide care "intentionally," that is, people who take care of children out of something more than a sense of obligation, are more willing to work on improving their skills and knowledge and more likely to be warm, nurturing and responsive.

The report challenges the conventional wisdom that care quality suffers when providers look after more than one or two children. Baby sitters with three to six children seemed to provide better care than those with one or two, probably because they have more experience. "Those providers tended to be more trained," Ms. Galinsky said.

The notion that people do better at what they like or want to do than what they are corralled into may have implications for the debate about welfare reform, which is now under way at the White House and will proceed on the Hill once Congress cobbles together a health care package.

One welfare reform proposal designed to give recipients work experience theoretically would solve two problems: put recipients to work at child care.

The specter of thousands of former welfare recipients pressed into service as providers receives a stern response in the recommendations at the end of the study on in-home care: "Welfare recipients should not be forced to become providers; all welfare-to-work participants should be screened for interest, commitment and aptitude before becoming providers."

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