Child Care

views updated May 23 2018

Child Care

Amy Harris-Solomon

Kerstin Holmlund

Geraldine Youcha


The phrase child care is a broad term used to describe any number of arrangements or settings in which the primary responsibility is caring for a young child. There are as many different settings as there are definitions of quality in child care. The number of young children under the age of five who were cared for a portion of their day by adults other than the custodial parents increased dramatically from the early 1980s to the early 2000s largely because of the increase in the number of mothers who had joined the workforce. According to the 2002 Quality Counts survey conducted by Education Week newspaper, approximately six out of every ten children, or 11.9 million children, ages five and younger were being jointly cared for by parents and early childhood educators, other child-care providers, relatives, or others.

While many parents may prefer to stay home with their infants or young children, this is not a financial option for most. Whether by choice or necessity, the majority of mothers are now working. Approximately one out of four young children are in a single parent home. Parents are forced to make choices for their children, and all too often choices are driven by the financial resources of the family, the availability or location of child care, hours of operation, or other factors not necessarily associated with either quality of care or parent's preference for care. In addition to paid care both in and out of the home, many families rely on the assistance of family members, older siblings, neighbors, or friends to help care for their young children.

There are several types of child care available to families of young children. In-home care is one type of care families choose that allows the child or children to remain in their home environment. In this model of care the provider either comes to the home or lives part-or full-time in the child's home with the family. Frequently a relative is the person providing the care, and in this situation it is not required that a child-care license be obtained. In-home day care is one of the only unregulated forms of child care in existence today. Other forms of child care, such as family day homes, center care, and corporate child-care centers, have become highly regulated systems with states determining how programs are evaluated and monitored and by whom.

Historical View of In-Home Child Care

Mothers have not always had the primary role of caring for their children in their home. Over the years children have been cared for at home by a variety of caregivers including, but not limited to, servants, slaves, wet nurses, and mammies. Even in recent history the more modern views of mothers staying at home to care for the children while the fathers work was largely a myth. Many homes of middle income or above continued to have black domestic servants as late as the 1950s.

Society's views on childhood have changed over the years as well, making it difficult to compare and contrast care provided in the home. In today's society children are cared for at least until they reach the legal adult age of twenty-one, sometimes even beyond that while they attend college or graduate school and get settled into a career. Dating back to the colonial times some children worked in the fields as early as age seven. Their childhood ended at this time, and they began to take on adult-like responsibilities of apprentice-ships, working in the home or in the fields. Wealthier families could pay for their children to study according to their inclinations, whereas children who came from poor environments had little say in where they went. Regardless of whether a parent paid for their child to go study with someone or a child was sold into an apprenticeship, the overall responsibility for their care at that time was with the caregiver or master. There was little formal schooling for young children outside of the home, therefore the work they learned through their apprenticeships was critical for their future livelihood.

Servants and Slaves

According to Geraldine Youcha, author of the 1995 book Minding the Children, it is hard to detail accurately what the day-to-day child-care arrangements were like in the United States during the days of slavery and the colonial period. The slave mother was not expected to take care of her children, as she was required to work in the fields or on the plantation. Children were the property of the plantation owners, and many of the children of slaves were thought to have been fathered by the masters. Children of slaves were sometimes cared for by the wife of the plantation owner, older slave children, or older slaves, or were left to fend for themselves during the long day when the mother was working. Those children who were born to slaves became slaves themselves.

Some black mothers became what were termed mammies. These women cared for the white children on the plantation and were in charge of many household domestic matters. These women upheld the high standards of the family and enforced the values and beliefs of the family with the children. The mammy's duty of caring for the children and the home is similar to the current role of the day nanny, with a major difference being that the mammies sometimes served as wet nurses to the white infants as well.

Domestic service was a common occupation for young girls during the nineteenth century. The number of servants a household had was generally related to the family's income.

Those who had more income had more servants and a wider variety of servants. The servants who took care of young children were considered lower servants, and these included the nursemaids and children's maids.

The Impact of Industrialization

For many urban families, the Industrial Revolution raised new issues regarding child care in the home. Most obviously, some families depended on work by mothers as well as fathers outside the home, which greatly complicated child care. Most mothers, even in the working class, ceased outside work upon marriage or the birth of the first child, but this was not always possible. Children were often cared for by other relatives. The number of grandmothers living with younger kin increased, in part because of the need for child care.

The spread of educational requirements also changed child-care patterns. Schools provided care for children, reducing the focus on the home after infancy. But schools also removed siblings who might help with child care in the homethough some groups tried to keep girls out of school in part because of their child-care potential. Falling birth-rates, by the later nineteenth century, also reduced siblings as a source of in-home care.

In the twentieth century, some of these arrangements continued, although the emphasis on a single wage-earner household by labor unions and other social policies allowed a period in which women most frequently took care of their own children, at least at times when their husbands were fully employed. During World War II (19391945), when women with young children took many jobs associated with war industries, employers and even the federal government sometimes provided child-care facilities.

Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Options for In-Home Child Care

After the 1970s, as women moved strongly into the labor force, families with low to moderate income levels often chose in-home care with grandparents caring for multiple children of varying ages at one time. Higher income families had the added option of hiring an au pair or a nanny to provide in-home care. While there are no licensing requirements for being an au pair or a nanny, there are interview processes and agencies that can assist with the hiring of these types of child-care workers.

An au pair is a foreign national living in a country specifically to experience life in that country. According to the American Institute of Foreign Policy, a legal au pair is a person who has contracted to come to the United States from a foreign country for a set amount of time, often one year. The term au pair means "equal" or "on par." An au pair lives with a family, receives room and board in exchange for child-care or baby-sitting services. The au pair may or may not be a person with any background in child development.

Nannies also provide child care in the family home, generally as live-ins. Typically these people provide more than routine child care, as they often assist in the daily routines of running a householdrunning errands, shopping, doing laundry, fixing meals, cleaning house, and performing other duties. The term nanny comes from the term used to describe a woman who lived with a wealthy British family and cared for the children. Nannies in British families were strictly to provide child care, as other servants took care of routine household chores. Nannies in the United States are generally young women, are often illegal immigrants, and typically have simple household responsibilities in addition to the primary role of caring for the children. The majority of larger cities in the United States have agencies that assist families in locating nanny care that meets their particular needs. Nanny care, like other types of in-home care, has recently been challenged by the growth in center care and other forms of out-of-home child care that are now available.

A growing number of grandparents are taking care of their young grandchildren. Data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census from 2002 indicated that grandparents were taking care of approximately 21 percent of all preschoolers who were in some type of child-care arrangement. This type of care may provide more economic advantage for the family because there may be minimal or no cost associated with it. The grandparent provides an emotional connection for the child and is in the position to support the values of the family, provide enriching family history, share stories, and pass traditions down from one generation to the next.

Families are also becoming more creative in their work schedules, with fathers and mothers often splitting their days so they work alternate shifts in order to continue caring for their children in the home. This dependence on family members continues a long tradition of assistance from among kin and children. If the mother works during the day, the father becomes the primary caregiver in the home, and the roles are reversed once the mother returns home from work, with the father working an alternate shift.

Baby-sitters differ somewhat in their role as in-home caregivers. Often a baby-sitter provides short-term care for a specified number of hours and is not the primary caregiver outside of those specified hours or days. Many are still students who work part-time. They may be one of many babysitters a family calls on, and often their care depends on their own activities, school schedules, and time. Their influence on children can nevertheless be significant. Baby-sitters can range in age from a young teenager to an elderly acquaintance, and their skills and experiences are as varied as their ages. There are baby-sitting courses available through local agencies such as the Red Cross, the YMCA, local colleges, and other youth or civic organizations.

The care of the child or children is dependent on the provider in much the same way as that of a parent. There are no overall standards related to fee structure, roles, and responsibilities especially in the case of relative caregivers. Payment for services is dependent on such factors as whether the person providing care is also receiving room and board, whether the person is a family member doing child care as a favor or as a family obligation, and what other benefits the caregiver is receiving. Commercial in-home care requires licensing if more than one family of children is being cared for. But some families create cooperative care arrangements with an exchange of services in a given rotation.


Berry, Mary Francis. 1993. The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother. Harmonds-worth, UK: Penguin.

Bredekamp, Sue, ed. 1987. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age Eight, expanded ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Cooper, Sonja. 1999. Child Care: A Parent's Guide. New York: Checkmark Books.

Ehrich, Michelle. 1999. The Anxious Parent's Guide to Quality Child-care. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Fein, Greta, and Alison Clarke-Stewart. 1973. Day Care in Context. New York: Wiley.

Gardner, Marilyn. 2002. "Meet the Nanny'Granny'." Christian Science Monitor August 1. Also available from <>.

Helburn, Suzanne, and Barbara Bergmann. 2002. America's Child Care Problem: The Way Out. New York: Palgrave Publishing.

Lally, J. Ronald, Abbey Griffin, Emily Fenichel, et al. 1995. Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Groups: Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

National Research Council. 1990. Who Cares for America's Children? Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Peisner-Feinberg, Ellen S., Margaret R. Burchinal, Richard M. Clifford, et al. 1999. The Children of the Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Go to School: Executive Summary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

Quality Counts 2002 Executive Summary. 2002. "In Early Childhood Education Care: Quality Counts." Education Week 17: 89.

Youcha, Geraldine. 1995. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner.

internet resource

Carnegie Corporation of New York. 1994. "The Quiet Crisis." Available from <>.

Amy Harris-Solomon


Preschools are an inherent aspect of welfare policies in many countries, but from time immemorial the upbringing of children of preschool age has been deemed a duty for the family. The formation of child-care strategies has been influenced by the social position of men and women, as well as societal value judgements, norms, and regulations. Any history of child care services should, therefore, consider the varying social situations of which it has been a part. The history of child care varies as well according to the social structures in different countries. Nevertheless, two distinct paths of development can be traced. The first has a social focus (care) and is linked to charity, while the second emphasizes pedagogical activities (education). The differences between these two types of institutions are still evident in the early twenty-first century.

Child Care Becomes an Issue for Poor Relief

Society faced a radical change as it underwent the transition from an agricultural to an industrialized capitalist society during the 1800s, and this affected people's living conditions. Wage earning became common and production was moved from the homestead to factories and workshops. This, in turn, created a need for child care on the part of working parents. Many children were left to look after themselves or each other because of a lack of organized child care. According to accounts beginning in the early 1800s, social unrest was an established factor in the social fabric of countries such as Germany, France, England, Sweden, and the United States. Women were actively involved in finding solutions for the problems society faced, and this also affected the social scene.

In the public debate on social problems, the working class and their families were the prime target. The wealthier classes agreed that the prevalence of street children was a central problem. Private initiatives, associations, and authorities did their best to solve these social welfare problems. In England, for example, the Infant School Society was started in 1821; in Germany the kindergarten movement developed;in the United States the New York Children's Aid Society was established in 1850; and in Sweden members of the bourgeoisie organized themselves to establish infant schools, asylums, and crèches.

Child Care for the Workers' Children

During the 1800s, in many parts of Europe and the United States, there emerged institutions whose goal was providing care for workers' children. These went under different names, including child crib, crèche, cradle-school, infant school, and workhouse, but had similar ambitions, including training and reform for young offenders and activities to keep children out of trouble in their free time.

The infant school. Robert Owen was known as the creator of infant schools, which started in 1816 in Scotland. The infant school was designed as a disciplinary measure for street children, and looked after children until the age when the compulsory education system could take over. They spread rapidly throughout Europe and the United States, where people committed to social change tried to incorporate them into their respective social systems. These schools were supposed to help solve urban problems. In England, infant schools were viewed as an ideal means of dealing with the vicious effects of industrialization. Infant schooling took a different turn in the United States. During the 1830s and 1840s an internal division arose within the movement, resulting in its decline. In France, Johann Friedrich Oberlin had already established schools for infants at the end of the 1700s, based on a social welfare perspective. The first French infant school was opened in 1828, and was eventually incorporated into the French école maternelle.

The workhouse. For the poor and their children throughout Europe and the United States, there was always the alternative of the workhouse. These institutions were established at various times in different countries, depending largely on when industrialization emerged there. In England, this occurred at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s. In the United States it took place during the first half of the nineteenth century, and in Sweden it did not occur until the second half of the same century. It was assumed that children in workhouses could be isolated from the unsuitable influence of their impoverished parents. The children were to be provided with moral upbringing, a simple form of education, and above all, they were to be put to work. By working, they would learn to take responsibility for their own upkeep. Critics of these institutions have seen their activities as a means of class control.

The crèche. In France, Firmin Marbeau established a crèche in 1844 as an alternative to the inadequate care provided by unaware babysitters. In 1846 he published a work entitled Cradle schools, or the means of lessening the misery of the people by increasing the population and was rewarded with the Monthyon prize by the French Academy. The French crèche became a model and spread rapidly to Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain, Austria, China, and the United States. Its advocates claimed they produced better results than providing financial assistance to individual parents. But critics stated that those who were in favor of letting society take responsibility for impoverished children were, in fact, also benignly accepting the licentious behavior that was thought to be the underlying cause of poverty.

The role of the crèche, also called nursery or cradle school, was to look after the children of working mothers. The crèche was a full-day institution for the supervision of children of poor parents where the mother had to go out to work, either because she was a single parent or because she had to contribute to the livelihood of the family The children were to be provided with nutritious food, good care, and sound moral training. From the beginning they were run under private management, through an association, or supported by local authorities, church boards, and poor relief bodies. The emphasis in the crèche was on the day-to-day supervision and care of children. Very simple materials were used for this and often the groups were large and the buildings unsanitary. The staff of the crèches consisted of poorly paid untrained working-class women. But upper-class men and women, sitting on their committees, carried out an extensive and sometimes painstaking supervision of the staff and activities provided.

A Kindergarten with an Educational Aim

The kindergartens were started by private initiative and with other motives than those of the infant schools, workhouses, and crèches. The first kindergarten was founded in Germany 1837 and emanated from the pedagogy and philosophy of Friedrich Froebel. Froebel was inspired by Jean-Jacques

Rousseau and Johann Pestalozzi. He did not believe in punishment as a force for upbringing and described the child as a plant in need of nourishment, light, and care. The term kindergarten (German for "children" and "garden") can be seen as a symbol of his main ideas. Its activities spread to many countries due to Froebel's writings and, above all, though the efforts of middle-class women. The growth of the kindergarten went hand-in-hand with the needs of bourgeois women to find an opportunity to establish a profession and career. For example, Margarethe Meyer and Elisabeth Peabody pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States in the 1850s; and Bertha Meyer, Margarethe's sister, went to England and continued the kindergarten movement there. From the middle of the 1800s onward, kindergartens were adopted all over Europe. A number of Swedish kindergarten pioneers qualified as teachers at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Haus in Berlin and on finishing their training returned to Sweden where, on a private basis, they established kindergartens, institutions for staff training (at the end of the 1800s), and a few years later, their own journal. The female pioneers within the kindergarten movement were good examples of how successfully the ideal of maternity could be combined with an interest in preschool pedagogics.

In the kindergarten the focus was on education. The staff were trained teachers or monitors, whose methods and materials constituted a part of their educational view. The activities of the kindergarten were restricted to a few hours every day. Many different interests had a stake in the kindergartens. They were financed by private individuals, companies, churches, immigrant societies, foundations, and municipalities. The kindergarten movement itself had internal contradictions. One issue was the question of which children would have access to the kindergartens. Some thought they should only be available to upper-class children, but most upper-class mothers were housewives and did not require child care. Representatives of the public kindergartens expressed the view that these institutions should be open to children from all walks of society, in order to reconcile class differences. In the United States so-called charity kindergartens were established. The first charity kindergarten was opened in St. Louis by Susan E. Blow during the winter of 18721873. Other women followed her example and it was not long before charity kindergartens were found in many of the towns and cities of the country.


Organized child care has focused its activities either on care or education. This dichotomy has reflected the institutional needs of different groups within society, either based on child care for working parents or the child's educational process. Children have been treated differently within these dichotomous infant institutions, and the division has been an obstacle to providing an integrated program of care and education for young children. Still, in the majority of European countries and in the United States, the preschool is integrated into the school system and provides an important role in the education, upbringing, and care of children.

In the twentieth century, most traditional forms of child care have continued to serve working mothers, but the ideas underlying the workhouse or crèche have largely disappeared. In the first half of the century, they were replaced by mothers' pensions, which allowed poor women to remain at home with their children, or by family subsidies. Since the 1970s, as more middle-class women have gone into the workplace, out-of-home child care has largely been left up to private business initiatives in the United States, while it is both provided by the state and closely supervised in most European countries.

See also: Nursery Schools .


Allen, Ann Taylor. 1991. Feminism and Motherhood in Germany 18001914. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Barnard, Henry. 1884. Kindergarten and Child Culture Papers: Froebel's Kindergarten, with Suggestions on Principles and Methods of Child Culture in Different Countries, Republished from the American Journal of Education. Hartford, CT: Office of Barnard's American Journal of Education.

Bloch, Marianne N. 1987. "Becoming Scientific and Professional: An Historical Perspective on the Aims and Effects of Early Education." In The Formation of the School Subjects, ed. Tom Popkewitz. New York: Falmer Press.

Brannen, Julia, and Peter Moss, eds. 2003. Rethinking Children's Care. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Crowther, Margaret A. 1981. The Workhouse System 18341929: The History of an English Social Institution. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

David, Miriam. 1980. The State, the Family, and Education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Duchatel, Tanneguy, and Francois Marc Louis Naville. 1842. Fattigvarden i alla dess riktningar sasom Statsanstalt och Privatinrättning samt dess nuvarande tillstand i civiliserade stater inom och utom Europa, svensk översättning (Poor relief in all its forms, from government to private institutions; its present state in civilized country within and outside of Europe, Swedish translation). Stockholm, Sweden: Norstedt and Söner.

Hareven, Tamara K., ed. 1977. Family and Kin in Urban Communities, 17301930. New York: New Viewpoint.

Holmlund, Kerstin. 1996. "Lat barnen komma till oss: Förskollärarna och kampen om smabarnsinstitutionerna"(Let the children come to us: Preschool teachers and their struggle for the child-care institutions). Ph.D. diss, Umea Pedagogiska institutionen.

Holmlund, Kerstin. 1999. "Cribs for the Poor and Kindergartens for the Rich: Two Directions for Early Childhood Institutions in Sweden, 18541930." History of Education 28, no. 2: 143155.

Holmlund, Kerstin. 2000. "Don't Ask for Too Much! Swedish Pre-school Teachers, the State, and the Union, 19061965." Historyof Education Review 29, no. 1: 4864.

Klaus, Alisa. 1993. Every Child a Lion. The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 18901920. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Michel, Sonya, and Rianne Mahon, eds. 2002. Child Care Policy at the Crossroads: Gender and Welfare State Restructuring. New York: Routledge.

Moberg, Ellen. 1947. "Barnträdgardens uppkomst och dess utveckling i Sverige" (The rise and development of the kindergarten in Sweden). In Barnträdga rden, ed. Maria Moberg, Stina Sandels. Stockholm, Sweden: Natur och Kultur.

O'Connor, Sorca M. 1995. "Mothering in Public: The Division of Organized Child Care in the Kindergarten and Day Nursery, St. Louis, 18861920." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 10: 6380.

Kerstin Holmlund


A look at child care in the United States today is a look back at the past. It has all been tried before, and the systems society has tended to support are the ones that have met its needs. These systems have been rejected and replaced by others that fit the ethos of a particular time, then resurrected in slightly different form. Group care away from home, day care, foster care, the schools as baby-sitters, and nanny care have all had previous incarnations, and twenty-first century debates about them are echoes of the heated discussions of earlier times. There is a long legacy of shared motherhood, with more than one mother in the center of the picture; there is also a little-known tradition of men as nurturers.

The Apprenticeship System

Colonial apprenticeship, imported from England, was to a large extent male child care. Designed to train adolescent boys in trades such as carpentry and printing and girls in housewifery, it was, for the poor, an early form of foster care. More than half the eleven hundred poor apprentices in Boston between 1734 and 1805 were five to nine years old. The master was responsible for children barely out of toddlerhood as well as those in their teens, and he served as "father" until the children were old enough to be on their own usually twenty-one for boys and sixteen to eighteen for girls, or until they were married. Apprenticeship in the early teens was more common in Europe where up to a third of all adolescents were apprenticed in rural or craft householdsin a combination of child care with service and training. In the United States the system began a slow decline with the American Revolution and with growing industrialization, and by the Civil War (18611865) it persisted only in pockets here and there.


While apprenticeship flourished and faded, slavery, that "peculiar institution," evolved its own innovative child-care practices. To free able-bodied women to work in the fields, most slave children were cared for, usually in groups, by other slaves (typically those too old to work). Sometimes the group care was day care that foreshadows more contemporary patterns; sometimes it was a system anticipating the communal child rearing of the Israeli kibbutz, with children living in a separate house. Infants were usually nursed by their mothers or by another slave. But there were instances in which the mistress acted as wet nurse to free the mother to return to more productive labor.

As for the white children on the plantation, the fabled Mammy of Gone with the Wind fame often served both as wet nurse and then dry nurse of the white master's child. But she existed for the most part only on large plantations. Many white children were cared for by black children hardly older than they were.

Nineteenth-Century Developments

A contagion of reform swept through the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, challenging the sanctity of the cult of motherhood. This generated a few, relatively small experiments in child care. Utopian communities, dedicated to the idea that the road to a perfect world would be paved with perfect children, included the celibate Shakers who provided what were essentially orphanages for neglected and dependent children and the controversial Oneida Community in upstate New York in which everythinghuman beings as well as propertywas shared. Both groups cared round the clock for children who came to or, in the case of Oneida, were born into the community. The Shaker communities lasted longer than any othersfrom 1776 to remnants of one in the early 2000s. The Oneida Community, started by the visionary John Humphrey Noyes (18111886) in 1848, lasted forty years and included as many as three hundred men, women, and children. Children were reared together from the time they were weaned (at one point this was as early as seven months) and were the responsibility of the community, not their parents. This horrified outside society but freed women for work, education, and love of both men and God.

In the midst of the immigrant slums of the late nineteenth century, science, philanthropy, social conscience, and practicality coalesced in the settlement housea "settlement" of do-gooders. Jane Addams (18601935) was a key figure in the movement. She cofounded Hull-House, which opened in Chicago in 1889 and soon became the most famous and the most influential example.

The day nurseries at the settlement houses provided for young children from the time a mother went to work until she came back at night. There was drop-off care for a few hours, care for sick children, and twenty-four-hour care, if necessary. Children were fed hot, nutritious meals. Babies as young as two weeks old were accepted if there was real need, parents were involved as teaching assistants and in parent education classes, and caretakers made home visits to provide continuity in the child's life. These day nurseries, supported by private contributions, were criticized as the condescending meddling of well-meaning women. But they now seem to have been an effective, humane way to deal with the children of working mothers.

The kindergarten arose initially in Germany as a way of providing early education and also, particularly for the lower classes, as improved child care. Spreading to the United States, the idea of the kindergarten, where very young children could be cared for by trained professionals, fit neatly with the theoretical concepts of the influential pioneering American psychologist G. Stanley Hall (18441924). Child rearing, Hall believed, was a science and too difficult to be left to bumbling mothers.

The kindergarten (run by private, charitable organizations at first, and then picked up by the public schools) was seized on as a way of assimilating the children of immigrants now crowding the American shores. By 1862 the word had come into the language, and the number of kindergartens grew along with the number of immigrants. Society had once again approved what it needed to care for its children. And as had happened with day nurseries, strategies to improve the lives of the poor trickled up to the rich and middle class. By 1920, about 10 percent of U.S. children, poor or not, attended kindergartens. For many mothers, child care for at least half the day could be assured.

Various ethnic groups brought with them the conviction that the extended family must care for its own children. Children who were orphans or half orphans, or those in families in which there were simply too many children for their parents to handle, were parceled out to relatives. The ravages of death and desertion made shared mothering necessary. Many nineteenth-century families had an older relative, most commonly a grandmother, living in, mainly for assistance in child care. This residential pattern began to diminish starting in the 1920s.

In black families, too, the extended family played a large role in caring for children of unmarried mothers and women who had to work, but this safety net extended beyond blood relatives to "fictive kin," neighbors or close female friends of the mother, or people who had come into the family constellation so long ago that no one remembered when or why. Such care lasted for a few hours, a week, or the rest of the child's life.

Even in the early twenty-first century, 50 percent of the children whose working mothers had less than a high school education were cared for by relatives. Relatives cared for 30 percent of the children of mothers with a high school diploma and 16 percent of those whose mothers had graduated from college. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of fathers staying home and caring for children increased dramatically since the 1990s.

By the mid-nineteenth century, orphanages, caring for large groups of children, were widely hailed as ideal institutions. They were established for the best of reasons to nurture children in the worst of times. Industrialization and immigration had cut families off from earlier supports. Epidemic disease and later the carnage of the Civil War (18611865) made it urgent to find a new way to care for children set adrift.

Historians have recently emphasized the extent to which working-class families often used orphanages as places to put children temporarily, when the family was financially destitute or disrupted by illness, with the parents maintaining contact with the children and later taking them back. For other children, orphanages sometimes doubled as child-placement schemes, with the goal of placing children in the homes of other families. Many authorities supported this system as the best way to provide a home environment and work training for children of the poor. It was often exploited, however, by foster parents themselves, who sought cheap labor.

A noninstitutional method to deal with orphansthe orphan trainsfocused on individuals. In the seventy-five years between 1854 and 1929 a mass displacement rivaled only by the Children's Crusade of the thirteenth century transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, neglected, and abandoned children from the crowded, filthy streets of New York and other eastern cities to the salubrious air of the midwestern countryside. Most of them were in the care of the New York Children's Aid Society, whosefounder, Charles Loring Brace (18261890), was determined to rescue "uncared for waifs before the evil environment has done its deadly work." Although the older children were essentially indentured servants, the farm families sometimes legally adopted the younger ones they took in. The system was criticized for tearing children from their homes or from familiar streets and for turning Catholics into Protestants in the Midwest. Yet many children prospered in homes far from home.

Trends in the Twentieth Century

The very rich, particularly before and after World War I (19141918), imported nannies to care for their children within the home. Preferably English or French or German and bringing with her an overlay of aristocracy on top of her own working-class origins, Nanny (or Mademoiselle or Fraulein) sometimes completely replaced parents, who made only brief state appearances. Some nannies were horrors others lifesavers. Middle-class families, meanwhile, often gained some child care from day servants, though their quality was widely distrusted.

During the mid- and late twentieth century, with mothers with young children entering the labor force in increasing numbers, the nanny became a fixture in middle- and upper-middle-class families. The word has now come to be a generic term for a full-time or part-time home-based child-care worker. In 2001, 11 percent of young children of college-educated working mothers were cared for by nannies or baby-sitters; the percentage drops to 5 for mothers with a high school education.

Between the two world wars, rich and not-so-rich parents who could not or chose not to care for their children themselves found another solution. Elite boarding schools took the boys (and sometimes the girls) and helped their parents avoid many of the upheavals of adolescence. The schools themselves, and the concept of adolescence as a separate period of life, were both born in the nineteenth century. Throughout this period, convents and other religious institutions continued to care for young children as they had done for centuries.

In the wider culture, after 1909 when the first White House Conference onhildren concluded, "The carefully selected foster home is for the normal child the best substitute for the natural home," foster family care came to be seen as ideal in place of the orphanage. Societies forthe Prevention of Cruelty tohildren (based on the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and sometimes combined with it) pioneered in investigating child abuse and removing children from unsuitable homes starting in 1874. Slowly the focus began to shift to foster care or preserving the family rather than removing the child.

With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the focus shifted again. Faced with massive unemployment, the Works Progress Administration began a system of day nurseries meant to give jobs to out-of-work teachers, nutritionists, nurses, and custodians, among others. The program, available only to the poor, was the first comprehensive support for and funding of child care by the federal government. When those make-work day-care centers were discontinued on March 1, 1943, most of them became Lanham Act centers for the children of mothers working in vitally important warrelated industries. For the first time day care lost the stigma of "for the poor or unwanted only."

Under the Lanham Act, approximately 1.6 million American children were in federally funded nursery schools and day care centers by July 1945, the peak of the war effort. The centers often operated in schools or on the grounds of factories, providing day care, before- and after-school care, and vacation coverage. A total of about six hundred thousand different children received care through Lanham Act funds during the two and a half years of the program's existence. More young children were cared for away from their mothers than ever before. The centers closed six months after the war ended when women were told firmly to go back home and make room for returning servicemen.

The success of the Lanham Act centers was largely forgotten in the 1950s as women were viewed as the only effective nurturing figures. After the 1960s, however, increasing numbers of American women with young children were ignoring the conventional wisdom as they chose to work or were forced by circumstances to do so. In 2002, 72 percent of women with children under eighteen years of age were in the labor force. Day-care centers spread haltingly in the United States in response to these patterns, with some state-run institutions for the urban poor and often-expensive private centers for others.

In other cultures day care is built permanently into the national social welfare system. In France, nearly 90 percent of children aged three to five are served in a program that blends education, health care, and child care in all-day centers and licensed private care homes, largely funded with tax dollars. The Israeli government provides kindergarten for all five-year-olds, and 50 percent of all three-to four-year-olds are in public child care. In China almost all children, starting at the age of fifty-six days, have government child care available, and five-day-a-week boarding care is offered in the large cities.

The widespread conviction that only a mother (preferably perfect) or her exemplary substitute can provide what a child needs to thrive is not supported by a body of respected research. Children have been helped and hurt by any system, whether orphanages, foster care, communal care, nanny care, or mother care. What matters is the quality of care and the quality of caring. And in each case much depended on the age and resilience of the child. Every era has had to find its own way of caring for the children it has produced, supported by psychological understanding that is, itself, a product of that time.

See also: Placing Out .


Baltzell, E. Digby. 1964. The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cott, Nancy, and Elizabeth H. Pleck, eds. 1979. A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Klaw, Spencer. 1993. Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Viking Penguin.

Langsam, Miriam Z. 1964. Children West: A History of the Placing-Out System of the New York Children's Aid Society. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Lerner, Gerda. 1973. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Vintage.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. 2001. "Nonmaternal Care and Family Factors in Early Development: An Overview of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 22, no. 5: 457492.

Rawick, George P., ed. 1972. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien. 1973. Who's Minding the Children? The History and Politics of Day Care in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Youcha, Geraldine. 1995. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner.

Geraldine Youcha


views updated May 08 2018


Broadly defined, the term childcare includes all types of education and care provided for young children. The term is also used more specifically for the supplemental care of children from birth to age eight years by persons other than parents. Childcare is used for a variety of reasons, and programs vary by the number and age of children, the reason care is used, the preparation and status of caregivers, and the location of the care. Terminology varies in different countries although there may be similar concerns of low pay and status, and insufficient training for teachers (Katz 1999; Woodill, Bernhard, and Prochner 1992).

The two major purposes of early childhood programs are care and education. A majority of families today use childcare while they are employed or engaged in other activities. Many programs include an educational component, based on agrowing body of research that documents the importance of children's early experiences for their healthy development and academic success. A large number of programs have originated through concern for children living in poverty and who may be at risk for success in school and later life. Programs may also include a parent component designed to educate parents through their participation in children's activities. In some countries, such as the People's Republic of China, programs are used to instill societal values in young children such as working together in a collective tradition. The childcare used for short-term activities such as shopping, appointments, and leisure activities has been less well studied (Cochran 1993; Feeney 1992).

Why is Childcare Important?

The economic structure of society has significantly influenced how families care for their children. Because women are usually the primary caregivers, the nature of their work roles has an important effect on childcare. In some societies, mothers as well as fathers can provide childcare, food, clothing, and shelter for their families through work located in or near the family home. In other situations, men are employed away from home and the daily care of children becomes the primary responsibility of women (Carnoy 2000).

Some women work only before marriage, before children are born, or after children are mature enough to care for themselves. However, for a variety of personal and economic reasons, including single parenthood, many mothers with young children today work outside the home and can no longer fill the traditional responsibilities of home and childcare. Because children's early experiences and relationships with caregivers have a significant influence on their future development and achievements, the quality of their care is an important concern for all.

Societal response to these changes in family structure and roles has varied. Some countries, such as Hungary, Brazil, and Russia, have highly centralized patterns of authority and provide universal support of childcare. In other countries, such as the United States, Britain, and Canada, family and childcare policies and standards are created at state, province, or local levels and child-care is the responsibility of the family. The questions of what the purpose of childcare should be and who it should serve are simple, but the answers are complex and have varied over time and from one culture to another (Cochran 1993).

Available Childcare

Childcare primarily occurs in three locations: care in the child's home by relatives or nonrelatives; care in a home outside the child's home by relatives or nonrelatives; and center-based care. There are significant variations within and between these categories, including the time that care is available, the cost and quality of care, the professional status of the caregiver, and the relationship between the caregiver and the family. The age of the child, marital status, race and national origin, and family income are also major influences on the care arrangements used by parents.

Some employed mothers do not use supplemental childcare because they work at home, they are able to alternate childcare with their spouses, older siblings care for younger children, or the children care for themselves. Relatives (often grandparents) may provide a great deal of care for children, ranging from occasional to full-time, regular care while the parents are employed. Care may occur in the parental home, especially if relatives live with the family or in the relative's home. Relatives are especially important caregivers for infants and toddlers, and as a supplement to school attendance for school-aged children, both times when other caregivers are difficult to find. The relationship between relatives and children may be especially strong as relatives have a past and anticipated future relationship and commitment to the family. However, the use of relatives as caregivers may occur because of limited options for childcare due to low income and poverty. Interest in care by relatives has increased in the United States and Canada since the passage of national welfare reforms requiring mothers of young children to enter the workplace. This has led to concerns about the quality of care provided by relatives and the use of public subsidies for caregivers who may work from a sense of duty rather than choice.

Individuals unrelated to the family also provide care in the child's home. Caregivers (nannies) may live in the family home and perform other household duties, whereas baby-sitters (often teenagers) provide occasional care for only a few hours. Sitters have been a common form of child-care in Canada and the United States when other alternatives were limited. Some families jointly hire and share the services of an in-home caregiver or trade childcare on a regular basis.

Children also receive significant amounts of care in other homes. In the United States, 21 percent of the care of children age five years and under was provided in another home by a nonrelative (U.S. Bureau of Census 2000). Family day care (also called home childcare, day mothers, or child minding) involves the care of a small number of children, usually six or fewer, in a private home. Care is provided for a fee unless the caregiver is a relative. In the United States and Canada, family day care is primarily regulated by states or provinces through licensing or registration, although many homes are unregulated.

The small number of children in day-care homes produces a desirable adult-child ratio, although the quality and the stability of the care depend on the characteristics of the caregiver. Although most providers have experience with young children, few may have formal training in child development. Providers may find home day care a positive way to combine care of their own children with the ability to earn income, but the presence of young nonfamily children in the home is stressful and the turnover rate of providers is high (Atkinson 1992; Nelson 1991).

The use of center-based childcare (also described as a nursery school, kindergarten, crèche, community-based care, or child development center) has generally increased over time. These programs are often staffed with professionally trained directors and teachers, and enrollment may range from fifteen to more than a hundred children, often organized by age of children. Some programs, initially designed for middle- and upper-class homes, provide a part-day program of cognitive enrichment and socialization. Other programs provide full-day care and have evolved from child welfare programs created to care for children from poor families whose mothers were employed outside the home. Today the differences between these two types of programs have lessened as many centers provide full-day care as well as educational programs. Although childcare centers have typically provided services for children from two and five years of age, there is a growing demand for center-based programs for infants and toddlers.

Some centers operate as for-profit businesses, whereas other centers are not-for-profit and may be sponsored by community organizations and social agencies. Cooperative programs have paid professional head teachers but use parent volunteers for the rest of the teaching staff. A small but growing number of employers support childcare by providing on-site care, information and referral services, flexible financial benefits, and/or flexible work schedules for parents.

Older children also need care when school hours do not mesh with parental hours of employment. The term latchkey child reflects concern for children who spend significant amounts of time without adult supervision. The descriptions of self-care or out of school care are now used as more positive terms. Parents may supervise children from work by checking periodically in person or by telephone. Other parents use programs that have been developed to provide care before and after school, usually at the school itself, offering breakfast and snacks as well as supervision until parents can pick up their children. Programs vary in whether the emphasis is placed on academic activities such as homework or on free time and recreational programs. Children may spend a significant amount of time outside of school in activities such as lessons and clubs regardless of whether their parents are employed.

Many programs have been developed to provide services for children with special needs. Atrisk programs provide comprehensive services for children considered to have high risk of failure in school. The goal of these programs is to give young children a boost that will help them succeed in school and life. Activities are designed for cognitive stimulation, socialization, and emotional support and also provide comprehensive services for parents and health and nutrition programs for children. These programs may be in cooperation with public schools, with programs available to provide parents with support services. Head Start is the best-known program in the United States, beginning in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty and the Great Society. A more recent component called Early Head Start serves children from birth to age three and has shown promising results (Gilliam and Ziglar 2000). Children with atypical development may receive care in separate facilities or, more commonly, are included in programs for typically developing children.

Although many educational philosophies exist, programs are often child-centered and based on hands-on learning experiences that encourage children to learn about the world through play and experimentation with materials and ideas. Another common goal is to help children learn how to function within a group and to successfully work with peers and adults. European educators have had an important influence on developing curriculum for young children. Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator, and Friedrich Froebel, a German founder of the kindergarten movement, developed the basic ideas of a child-centered curriculum. Other important innovators included Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, and John Dewey, an American philosopher. Important theorists of the late twentieth century include Jean Piaget, a Swiss epistemologist, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, and the community-based approach found in Reggio Emilia, an area in northern Italy (Prochner and Howes 2000). Many of these original ideas changed over time as they were adapted in different countries.

The curriculum generally includes periods of free-choice play, planned activities, rest periods, and meals and snacks. Governmental agencies often set basic standards for the centers' programs, buildings and equipment, and staff certification. Some centers and caregivers meet even higher standards through accreditation by professional organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Breddecamp and Copple 1997; Swiniarski, Breitborde, and Murphy 1999).

The professional role of the teacher varies between countries. A summary of European Union countries identified four broad typologies: early childhood pedagogues serving children from birth to compulsory school age; preschool specialists serving children in the two to three years preceding school entry; teachers involved with children from age three to eleven-and-a-half; and social pedagogues involved in various work fields including early childhood education (Oberhuemer 2000). Because of cultural differences, it is difficult to compare the effectiveness of programs in countries that have different needs, resources, and philosophies (Feeney 1992; Katz 2000). Projects such as the Effectiveness Initiative sponsored by the Bernard van Leer Foundation are attempts to cross-culturally compare what works in early childhood development programs and the barriers to success. (Early Childhood Matters 2000)

Effects of Childcare

Much research has been done on the positive and negative effects that extensive hours of childcare may have on children. When mothers began entering the labor force in large numbers in the 1960s, experts in child development expressed concern about the effect of mothers' absences on the emotional relationship between children and parents. Attachment, the emotional bond that begins early in life, is considered to have a critical influence on a child's social, emotional, and cognitive development. Most experts agree that children need a stable and continuous relationship with a sensitive and responsive caregiver in order to develop a secure emotional attachment.

Concern that this bond would be weakened when the child attended day care grew from previous studies of short- and long-term parent-child separations during war time and hospitalizations. Some researchers are concerned that children with extensive nonparental care in their first year of life may be negatively affected by the quality of the care (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000). Other research has examined the effect of day care on children's social development. Children enrolled in childcare typically have more experience interacting with peers than children raised at home, creating both positive and negative results. These children typically show greater independence, self-confidence, and social adeptness, but they may also show evidence of greater aggression and noncompliance to adult requests (Booth 1992). The cultural context of childcare may have a significant influence on children. For example, research has shown significant differences in the effects of childcare on children living in the United States as compared to children living in Sweden (Lamb et al. 1992).

Initial research with childcare in high-quality university day-care centers found little evidence that day care produced damage to children. In fact, this childcare often provided important benefits for children with restricted home environments. Current research suggests that the quality of childcare is a critical factor determining how children are influenced by childcare.

The long-term impact of extended early intervention programs on children's success in school and life is now being documented in the United States through longitudinal studies (Schweinhart and Weikart 1997). Data collected for thirty-three years from the Chicago Child-Parent Centers (Reynolds 2000) suggests several principles to guide early intervention programs. Preference in enrollment in such programs should be given to children with the greatest learning needs, as the effects of participation are greatest for children living in the highest poverty neighborhoods. Both early intervention and extensive participation in a program appear to be important in influencing children's development. Comprehensive programs that focus on the "whole child" and assist families in meeting health and nutritional needs are important components, as is active parent involvement in the program. Small class sizes, low teacher-child ratios, and a language-based curriculum are critical components of an effective program as is continual training for program staff. Continuing research and evaluation are vital components for program improvement.

The relationship between maternal employment and children's development is complex with many indirect linkages. Research studies have been limited in the scope of questions asked, and care must be taken in generalizing between cultures. However, mothers' employment status by itself does not appear to create a negative experience for children. To predict the effect of childcare accurately, the characteristics of the child, the child's family, the childcare program, parental employment, and the context of the society must all be considered (Prochner and Howe 2000).

Availability, Cost, and Quality of Childcare

Unless care is subsidized on a national level, child-care is a major expenditure for many families. For low-income families, the cost of childcare may be similar to the cost of food and housing and require a significant portion of family income. Some low-income families can find good quality care that is subsidized by government programs, although this care is often limited. Families with higher incomes may spend a small percent of their total income on childcare, but families with moderate incomes who are ineligible for subsidies may be least able to afford good quality childcare. The cost of childcare also differs by the type of care used. In-home care, such as that provided by a nanny, is generally the most expensive care; center-based care and family day care are usually in between; and care provided by relatives the least expensive (Giannarelli and Barsimantov 2000).

The quality of the childcare is critically important when children spend many hours away from home. Experts define quality in different ways but generally agree on several important factors. The easiest aspects of quality to identify are those associated with the structure of the childcare. These include items that can easily be regulated such as the caregiver to child ratio, group size, caregiver education and training, and the size of the program. Process or interactive dimensions of quality may be even more important but are more difficult to measure. These include the relationship between the child and the caregiver; learning activities; the physical environment, including the organization of equipment and space; and the child's relationship with peers. To be effective, programs and activities should be sensitive to children's cultural experiences and fit their level of development and interests (Prochner and Howe 2000; Bredde-camp and Copple 1997).

Evaluation of care may vary depending on the experience of the person doing the evaluation. One may view care from a top-down perspective (characteristics of the setting, equipment, and the programs as seen by adults) or from the bottom up (how children experience care). Quality may also be viewed from the inside (staff) or from the outside (parents). A societal perspective may also be used to view childcare, assessing how programs serve the community and the larger society. In a comparison of childcare in different countries, Michael E. Lamb and his associates (1992) have documented how interpretations of quality differ according to the context and values of the community and family.

Parents generally indicate that they are satisfied with the childcare they use, although some would prefer other care and may become more critical when they are no longer using the care. Parents say that the quality of the care is the characteristic most valued when selecting childcare, and the most important aspect of quality is the nature of the provider-child relationship.

Selection of Childcare

Parents' actions and decisions are critical in the selection of childcare. The search for good-quality childcare requires an investment of parental time and energy and often begins with an assessment of family needs and values. How many hours a day is care needed and during which days in the week? Most childcare used to meet employment needs is available weekdays, and it may be difficult to find care on weekends, at night, or for irregular time periods. The child's age is also important as it is usually easier to find care for preschoolers than infants and toddlers.

With this knowledge, parents can explore available childcare arrangements. Most parents report that they learn about their childcare from friends, coworkers, and relatives. Regulated family day care and day-care centers are often listed with governmental agencies, and information and referral centers can provide personalized information and listings of caregivers.

Most parents need backup arrangements for times when the main caregiver is unavailable or the child is sick. Although the turnover rate of individual caregivers in center-based care is high, the service is usually continuous. However, if an individual caregiver is unable to work, the parent must find a replacement. This problem is most severe for mothers with jobs that allow little or no leave time for childcare emergencies. Finding suitable childcare involves consideration of parental and child needs as well as the supply of childcare and the demands of a job. Many families report that no one type of care is sufficient to meet all their child-care needs.

Childcare Policy Issues

The care and education of young children is a primary responsibility of parents; however, the wellbeing of children is also an important concern for the whole society. What rights and responsibilities should parents, employers, schools, community groups, and the society have for children? If governments certify that childcare meets basic standards, what should these standards be? Should parents who do not work outside the home receive support for the care they provide for children?

Childcare has become an important business (more than $40 billion is spent annually for child-care in the United States), and a central component of the economic and social goals of many countries. In some countries, such as France and Taiwan, curriculum and standards for the professional preparation of caregivers are established at a national level and childcare is universally available. In other countries, such as the United States and Canada, the responsibility for finding high-quality childcare is primarily a parental responsibility (Brennan 1998; Prochner and Howe 2000). Standards are usually the most rigorous for centerbased care although little formal preparation may be required for family day-care providers, relatives, or caregivers in the child's home.

Childcare has become an accepted part of life for many families in the world and its use is linked with a variety of purposes, national priorities, and policies. However, the lack of adequate funding to meet the demands of the childcare system appears to be a worldwide constant (Feeney 1992). A second universal challenge is to find ways to ensure that children receive high-quality care in all settings and that the care also meets the needs and concerns of family members, employers, caregivers, schools, and society in general (Swaminathan 1998).

See also:Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Child Custody; Childhood; Colic; Disabilities; Discipline; Division of Labor; Dual-Earner Families; Family Planning; Family Policy; Fatherhood; Gay Parents; Grandparenthood; Housework; Intergenerational Programming; Lesbian Parents; Motherhood; Respite Care: Child; Single-Parent Families; Sibling Relationships; Spanking; Substitute Caregivers; Time Use; Transition to Parenthood; Work and Family


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booth, a., ed. (1992). childcare in the 1990s: trends andconsequences. hillsdale, nj: lawrence erlbaum associates.

breddecamp, s., and copple, c., eds. (1997). developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. washington, dc: national association for the education of young children.

brennan, d. (1998). the politics of australian childcare, rev. edition. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press.

cochran, m., ed. (1993). international handbook ofchildcare policies and programs. westport, ct: greenwood press.

carnoy, m. (2000). sustaining the new economy. cambridge, ma: harvard university press.

dewey, j. (1900). the school and society. chicago: university of chicago press.

edwards, c.; gandini, l.; and forman, g., eds. (1998).the hundred languages of children: the reggio emilia approach—advanced reflections, 2nd edition. greenwich, ct: ablex.

feeney, s. (1992). early childhood education in asia and the pacific. new york: garland.

froebel, f. (1896). pedagogics of the kindergarten, trans.j. jarvis. new york: appleton.

gilliam, w., and ziglar, e. f. (2000). "a critical meta-analysis of all evaluations of state funded preschool from 1977 to 1998: implications for policy, service delivery and program evaluation." early childhood research quarterly 15(4):441–73.

lamb, m. e.; steinberg, k. j.; hwang, c. p; and broberg,a. g., eds. (1992). childcare in context. hillsdale, nj: lawrence erlbaum associates.

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piaget, j. (1952). the origins of intelligence in york: international universities press.

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reynolds, a. (2000). success in early intervention. lincoln: university of nebraska press.

schweinhart, l., and weikart d. p. (1997). "thehigh/scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23." early childhood research quarterly 12(2):117–43.

shonkoff, j., and phillips, d. (2000). from neurons toneighborhoods. washington, dc: national academy press.

swaminathan, m. (1998). the first five years: a criticalperspective on early childhood care and education in india. new delhi: sage.

swiniarski, l. a.; breitborde, m.; and murphy, j. (1999).educating the global village: including the young child in the world. upper saddle river, nj: prentice hall.

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giannarelli, l., and barsimantov, j. (2000). "childcareexpenses of america's families." the urban institute. available from

katz, l. (1999). "international perspectives on early childhood education: lessons from my travels." early childhood research and practice 1(1). available from

oberhuemer, p. (2000). "conceptualizing the professionalrole in early childhood centers: emerging profiles in four european countries." early childhood research and practice 2(2). available at

alice m. atkinson


views updated May 21 2018


Since the early recorded history of the United States non-familial care providers have minded children so that parents could engage in work or other activities (Youcha 1995). In colonial times apprentices were sent to live with masters to learn a trade; this was done to provide vocational training and oversight of a young apprentice. Under slavery, white planters' wives cared for black children while their enslaved parents worked in the fields or in contrast, female slaves served as "mammies" who cared for the plantation owner's children. Urban immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries put children to work in factories and sometimes sent them to charitable day nurseries that were organized to keep children off the streets (Rose 1999). World War II required mothers to work in the defense industry; many of the children of those mothers were placed in federally subsidized day care. In short, people have used care arrangements other than maternal care for children throughout American history.


Even during the Depression and World War II American social institutions did not widely accept and endorse nonmaternal care for children. The Children's Bureau, a federal agency that propagated a rhetoric of maternalism, advocated the idea that daycare was a necessarily evil that should be secondary to mothers caring for their own offspring (Rose 1999). Americans were ambivalent about children receiving childcare services through the postwar years. During the 1950s notables such as Margaret Mead and Eleanor Maccoby (Michel 1999) made the case that daycare could be benevolent, but many people argued against that view. In a 1958 speech President Dwight Eisenhower encouraged mothers who were prosperous enough not to work outside the home, for "they would have to consider what is the price they are paying in terms of the opportunity that child has been denied," that is, the opportunity to be molded by a mother (quoted in Michel 1999).


The postwar era saw dramatic changes in women's identities and roles. Labor in the sense of childbirth became more common during the postwar baby boom. Another type of female labor (workforce participation) also increased a trend that continued through the second half of the twentieth century. Concurrently, homes occupied by a mother married to a male breadwinner declined as a proportion of families, whereas female-headed families increased. Women, mothers included, transformed the makeup of the workforce, raising the percentage of women over age sixteen who were working from 33.9 percent in 1950 to 59.8 percent in 1998 (Fullerton 1999). There emerged a systematic, widespread need for childcare. In the absence of uniform national standards for children's care, parents sought affordable local options. Parents entrusted their children to a patchwork of diverse care circumstances, including care by a family member, care in the home of an unrelated provider (family daycare), and the use of a privatized daycare center or nursery school.


Childcare has continued to occupy a very significant place in American life. Across the ages from birth to age five, 60 percent of children and infants (13 million) were in some type of childcare arrangement in the early years of the twenty-first century (Hofferth 1996).

Women's wages have become indispensable to families with single and married mothers alike. For families with young children (under age six) who live on household incomes under $18,000 per year 90 percent of family income on average comes from the mother's earnings. Even in middle-class families earning $36,000 to $60,000 annually the mother's income represents over half (53 percent) (National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies 2006). In poor family's federal welfare reform in 1996 resulted in pressure on mothers to take jobs and find childcare arrangements. For the impoverished working poor childcare can deplete meager economic resources because of gaps in funding. For example, Head Start, a nationally funded educational preschool program aimed at the poor, served only 34 percent of three- to five-year-old children living in poverty in that period (Blau 2001).

Despite the broad U.S. childcare landscape, the conditions of childcare have been unsatisfactory in two respects. First, childcare has become unaffordable even for middle-class families. Childcare expenses consume a third or more of the household budget in female-headed families and can be prohibitive for mothers entering the workplace from welfare. Second, the quality of American childcare is inadequate; it generally is agreed among experts that excellent-quality care is exceptional rather than common. The quality issue has dismaying consequences for children and babies who spend substantial time in childcare during a period of profound neurological, cognitive, emotional, and social development. In the late 1990s a study found that 72 percent of infants in childcare entered care by age four months, attending twenty-nine hours a week on average (Vandell 2004).

The impact of childcare on children is complex, partly because there are varied forms of care. American daycare centers, whose use increases with age, account for 27 percent of childcare arrangements for three-year-olds and 51 percent of those arrangements for five-year-olds. Using grandparents as providers declines over the preschool years, falling from 23 percent among three-year-olds to only 14 percent among five-year-olds. Overall, the scattershot ways in which childcare is obtained include parents looking after their own children (15 percent of arrangements at age five) and family daycare (7 percent of care arrangements at age five), among other approaches (Waldfogel 2006).

Center care on average is more expensive than care given by a family daycare provider. Thus, center care disproportionately serves children from families with higher incomes. Further, the highest-quality centers tend to enroll children from more affluent families. (Quality of care is defined by experts to involve care providers trained in child development, a low ratio of teachers to children, a hazard-free and activity-rich setting, activities that are developmentally enriching, and interactions between caregivers and children that are responsive to the children and developmentally appropriate [King and MacKinnon 1998, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development 2003].) Family daycare tends to be of lower quality overall than center care (Crittenden 2001). Partly because they lack information, parents are not necessarily discerning at judging daycare quality (Blau 2001).

In the absence of federal standards, childcare centers are regulated by the individual state. Some states do not require any kind of accreditation, and most do not require that care providers be licensed. One study showed that thirty-two states required no prior training for teachers; in the remaining states, the amount of education required was often minimal. Only twelve states required teachers to have at least a high school diploma (Helburn and Bergman 2002). Family daycare tends to receive less oversight than does center care, with an estimated 82 percent of homes completely unregulated (Crittenden 2001).

The fact that childcare quality falls short in the United States corresponds to the fact that Americans have fewer supports in financing childcare than exist elsewhere in the world. Despite Head Start and other modest subsidies for the poor, the United States has lower levels of public support for childcare than do at least nine European countries (Waldfogel 2001).

Caregivers are central to the quality of care. American caregivers are paid inadequately, resulting in high turnover. In centers only 28 percent of caregiving for infants (age fifteen months) has been rated as positive. This improves only slightly for children three years of age, for whom 34 percent of caregiving is positive (Helburn and Bergmann 2002).

A concern of parents involves the risk of child abuse by care providers. Maltreatment of children in childcare, which was publicized after the 1983 landmark case at the McMartin preschool in California, occurs less frequently than some people suppose. The incidence of sexual abuse in daycare centers (5.5 per 10,000 children) is actually lower than that for children cared for at home (8.9 per 10,000 children). Physical abuse by baby-sitters in private homes most commonly takes the form of overdiscipline (e.g., bruising of buttocks) by caregivers with unrealistic expectations of children or poor comprehension of children's motives (Schumacher and Carlson 1999). The possibility of abuse highlights the importance of both regulatory oversight and caregiver education in regard to normal child behavior. In response to fears of abuse, some say that daycare centers have overreacted by forbidding caretakers to touch children and thus discouraging healthy caregiver affection (Tobin 1997).


Because good care can help children become contributing adult citizens, the public interest is involved in this issue. However, the financial limitations of a privatized system, combined with parents who are inadequately informed, holds back childcare quality.

Proposals to improve childcare have been offered, usually involving a centralized federal role in funding and/or enhancing quality. The economist David Blau, for example, stated that a federal voucher program could attack the cost problem through a market mechanism: childcare vouchers. The aid represented by a voucher would be higher when the voucher was used for higher-quality care (Blau 2001).

Such approaches, if drafted as legislation, could meet with ambivalent reactions. In 1987 the ABC Bill (Act for Better Child Care Services) was introduced to Congress, where it had broad support but failed after vocal opposition by neoconservatives who wished to retain decentralized state control. A major argument against the bill was that its provisions would interfere in families' parenting (Teghtsoonian 1993). Historically, Americans have depended on nonmaternal care of children yet at the same time have exhibited a cultural ethos of maternalism. In some ways modern psychological research has similar underpinnings, pitting nonmaternal care against the mother-child relationship in studies of how childcare affects the mother-child bond (Belsky and Steinberg 1978).

In light of the public decision making that has prevented reform, childcare advocates face a legislative and political challenge. Mobilizing for better care entails wrestling politically with deep-seated cultural beliefs not so much about children as about motherhood (Marchbank 2000). In the future establishing an adequate appreciation of the need for high quality nonmaternal care is likely to be, like childcare itself, a difficult undertaking.


Belsky, Jay, and Laurence Steinberg. 1978. "The Effects of Day Care: A Critical Review." Child Development 49(4): 929-949.

Blau, David M. 2001. The Child Care Problem: An Economic Analysis. New York: Russell Sage.

Crittenden, Ann. 2001. The Price of Motherhood. New York: Metropolitan.

Fullerton, Howard. 1999. "Labor Force Participation: 75 Years of Change, 1950–1998 and 1998–2025." Monthly Labor Review 122(12): 3-12.

Helburn, Suzanne W., and Barbara R. Bergmann. 2002. America's Child Care Problem: The Way Out. New York: Palgrave.

Hofferth, Sandra L. 1996. "Child Care in the United States Today." The Future of Children 6(2): 41-61.

King, Donna, and Carol MacKinnon. 1988. "Making Difficult Choices Easier: A Review of Research on Day Care and Children's Development." Family Relations 37(4): 392-398.

Marchbank, Jennifer. 2000. Women, Power, and Policy: Comparative Studies of Childcare. London and New York: Routledge.

Michel, Sonya. 1999. Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. 2006. Breaking the Piggy Bank: Parents and the High Price of Child Care. Toronto: NACCRRA.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Early Child Care Research Network. 2003. "Does Amount of Time Spent in Child Care Predict Socioemotional Adjustment during the Transition to Kindergarten?" Child Development 74(4): 976-1005.

Rose, Elizabeth. 1999. A Mother's Job: The History of Day Care, 1890–1960. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schumacher, Ruth, and Rebecca Carlson. 1999. "Variables and Risk Factors Associated with Child Abuse in Daycare Settings." Child Abuse and Neglect 23(9): 891-898.

Teghtsoonian, Katherine. 1993. "Neo-Conservative Ideology and Opposition to Federal Regulation of Child Care Services in the United States and Canada." Canadian Journal of Political Science 26(1): 97-121.

Tobin, Joseph. 1997. Making a Place for Pleasure in Early Childhood Education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Vandell, Deborah Lowe. 2004. "Early Child Care: The Known and the Unknown." Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 50(3): 387-414.

Waldfogel, Jane. 2001. "International Policies toward Parental Leave and Child Care." The Future of Children 11(1).

Waldfogel, Jane. 2006. What Children Need. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Youcha, Geraldine. 1995. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner.

                                           Cindy Dell Clark

Child Care

views updated Jun 11 2018


CHILD CARE. In modern industrial societies, child care is recognized as an essential social service for women seeking to enter the paid labor force or pursue education or training and, along with paid parental leave, as an essential component of gender equality. Today, the majority of mothers in the United States work outside the home, yet despite decades of advocacy on the part of American children's experts and feminists, there is still no comprehensive, publicly supported system of child care. Instead, provision is divided between the public and private sectors, with the bulk of public services linked to antipoverty "workfare" programs, and provisions vary widely in terms of form, quality, affordability, and accessibility. This "patchwork" system may be explained by the history of American child care, which has its origins in the seventeenth century.

Colonial and Nineteenth-Century Child Care

Both Native American hunter-gatherers and Euro-American farmers and artisans expected women as well as men to engage in productive labor, and both groups devised various methods, such as carrying infants in papooses or placing toddlers in "go-gins," to free adults to care for children while working at other tasks. Notably, neither group considered child care to be exclusively mothers' responsibility, instead distributing it among tribal or clan members (Native Americans), or among parents, older siblings, extended family, and servants (European Americans). Some of the colonies also boasted "dame schools," rudimentary establishments that accepted children as soon as they were weaned.

As industrialization moved productive work from farms and households to factories, it became increasingly difficult for mothers to combine productive and reproductive labor, making them more economically dependent on male breadwinners as they assumed sole responsibility for child care. As this role gained ideological force through concepts such as "Republican motherhood" and the "moral mother," maternal wage earning fell into disrepute, except in times of emergency, that is, when mothers lost their usual source of support. Female reforms sought to facilitate women's work in such instances by creating day nurseries to care for their children. The earliest such institution was probably the House of Industry, founded by the Female Society for the Relief and Employment of the Poor in Philadelphia in 1798. Throughout the nineteenth century, female philanthropists in cities across the nation (with the exception of the South) followed suit, establishing several hundred nurseries by 1900.

With few exceptions, nineteenth-century child care institutions excluded the children of free black mothers, most of whom were wage earners. Slave mothers, however, were compelled to place their children in whatever form of child care their owners devised. Slaveholders on large plantations set up "children's houses" where older slave children or older slaves no longer capable of more strenuous work cared for slave infants, while female slaves, denied the right to care for their own offspring, worked in the fields or became "mammies" to planters' children. After Emancipation, African American women continued to work outside the home in disproportionate numbers, prompting Mary Church Terrell, the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, to remark that the day nursery was "a charity of which there is an imperative need." Black female reformers like those of Atlanta's Neighborhood Union responded by setting up nurseries and kindergartens for African American children.

By the turn of the century, the need for child care had reached critical proportions for Americans of all races, as increasing numbers of mothers either sought or were financially compelled to work outside the home. To point up the need for more facilities and improve their quality, a group of female reformers set up a "model day nursery" at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and then founded a permanent organization, the National Federation of Day Nurseries (NFDN).

Despite being the first national advocate for child care, the NFDN made little headway in gaining popular acceptance of their services, due, in part, to their conservatism. Clinging to a nineteenth-century notion of day nurseries as a response to families in crisis, the NFDN failed to acknowledge the growing trend toward maternal employment. Meanwhile, among policy makers, momentum was shifting toward state-funded mothers' pensions intended to keep women without male breadwinners at home instead of going out to work. But many poor and low-income women did not qualify for pensions, and state funding often dried up, so maternal employment—and the need for child care—persisted. The NFDN, however, eschewed public support for nurseries, preferring to maintain control over their private charities, a decision that left them ill prepared to meet increasing demands. At the same time, day nurseries were coming under fire from reformers who compared them unfavorably to the new kindergartens and nursery schools being started by early childhood educators. But few day nurseries could afford to upgrade their equipment or hire qualified teachers to match those of the nursery schools.

The New Deal to World War II

The child care movement was poorly positioned to take advantage of federal support in the 1930s, when the New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins sought to create a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program that would both address the needs of young children who were "culturally deprived" by the Great Depression and provide jobs for unemployed school teachers. Instead, early childhood educators caught Hopkins's attention and took the lead in administering some 1,900 Emergency Nursery Schools. Though the educators did their best to regulate the quality of the schools, to many Americans they carried the stigma of "relief." Nonetheless, they served to legitimize the idea of education for very young children on an unprecedented scale.

The Emergency Nursery Schools were intended to serve the children of the unemployed, but in some instances, they also functioned as child care for wage-earning parents. With the onset of World War II, defense industries expanded, reducing the ranks of the unemployed, and many of the schools were shut down. A handful of federal administrators, aware that maternal employment was on the upswing, fought to convert the remaining schools into child care centers. These met some of the need for services until 1943, when more generous federal funding became available to local communities through the Lanham Act. However, the supply of child care could not keep up with demand. At its height, some 3,000 Lanham Act centers were serving 130,000 children—when an estimated 2 million slots were needed. Mothers who could not find child care devised informal arrangements, sending children to live with relatives, relying on neighbors who worked alternate shifts, or leaving older children to care for themselves—giving rise to the image of the infamous "latchkey" child.

The Postwar Period

Since both the WPA and Lanham Act programs had been presented as emergency measures to address specific national crises, they could not provide the basis for establishing permanent federally sponsored child care in the postwar period. The issue languished until the 1960s and 1970s, when it once again appeared on the public agenda, this time in conjunction with efforts to reform public assistance through a series of amendments to the Social Security Act, which authorized Aid to Families of Dependent Children. Around the same time, Congress also established Head Start, a permanent public program of early childhood education for the poor. Though it proved highly effective, Head Start was not considered child care until the 1990s. Congress did take a first step toward establishing universal child care in 1971, with passage of the Comprehensive Child Development Act, but President Nixon vetoed it with a strong Cold War message that effectively chilled further legislative efforts for the next several decades.

The lack of public provisions notwithstanding, the postwar decades witnessed a significant rise in maternal employment, which in turn prompted the growth of market-based child care services. This trend was aided by several federal measures, including the child care tax deduction passed in 1954 (and converted to a child care tax credit in 1972), as well as a variety of incentives to employers to set up or sponsor services for their employees, beginning in 1962. Market-based services included voluntary or nonprofit centers, commercial services, and small mom-and-pop or family child care enterprises. Quality varied widely and regulation was lax, in part due to the opposition from organized child care entrepreneurs.

Child Care and Welfare Reform

From the 1970s through the 1990s, the link between child care and welfare reform was reinforced by passage of a series of mandatory employment measures that also included child care provisions. The Family Support Act of 1988, which mandated employment or training for most applicants, including mothers of small children, also required states to provide child care; by the mid-1990s, however, the states were serving only about 13 to 15 percent of eligible children. At the same time, efforts to pass more universal legislation continued to meet strong opposition from conservatives like President George H. W. Bush, who believed that middle-class women should re-main at home with their children. In 1990, Congress passed the Act for Better Child Care Services (the ABC bill), a compromise that expanded funding for Head Start and provided forms of child care assistance (including the Earned Income Tax Credit). To satisfy conservative calls for devolution to the states, it initiated a new program called the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).

The final link between child care and workfare was forged with passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, legislation that was twice vetoed by President Bill Clinton, not because of its stringent work requirements for poor women, but for having inadequate child care provisions. When PRWORA came up for renewal in 2002, much of the debate turned around the issue of child care and whether proposed funding levels would provide sufficient services so that recipients could meet increasingly stringent work requirements. Among middle-and upper-income families, the demand for child care remains high, with parents relying on private-sector services, baby sitting cooperatives, and "nannies," many of whom are undocumented workers. Despite growing concern about the impact of low-quality care on children of all social classes, prospects for universal public child care remain dim, as the division between public and private child care produces a divided constituency that cannot mobilize sufficient political pressure to bring about the necessary legislative changes.


Michel, Sonya. Children's Interests / Mothers' Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

Michel, Sonya, and Rianne Mahon. Child Care Policy at the Crossroads: Gender and Welfare State Restructuring. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Rose, Elizabeth. A Mother's Job: The History of Day Care, 1890–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


See alsoHead Start ; Maternal and Child Health Care ; Welfare System .