U.S. child care seriously lags behind Europe

Nov 27 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

While working parents in the United States struggle to find and afford private child care of even mediocre quality, parents in most European countries easily find publicly funded programs offering good-to-excellent care.

This is according to University of Massachusetts-Amherst sociologists Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel, writing in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of Contexts magazine, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Sociological Association.

Using a comparative perspective, Clawson and Gerstel synthesize a large body of research in their article, "Caring for Our Young: Child Care in Europe and the United States," in which they examine the social and political assumptions underlying the quality and types of care available across countries.

The researchers point out that the different models of child care "challenge us to think … more broadly about childhood, parenting and the kind of society we value."

Their assessment of the U.S. and European child-care systems reveals sharp contrasts and provides an opportunity to analyze these countries' differing goals.

Should child care emphasize education or play? Parents or peers? Organized care or parental involvement?

According to the authors, rethinking U.S. child-care policies is particularly timely, given recent changes in welfare, employment, and family patterns. But, funding for child care is fragmentary, and reforms are generally not made with consideration of the goals for the kind of system that is emerging or being created.

Over the past several decades, there has been a heightened demand in the United States for child-care services. Clawson and Gerstel note that almost half of children less than one year old now spend a good portion of their day in some form of non-parental care.

With expert opinions emphasizing the potential benefits of child care (e.g., a recent report of the National Academy of Sciences noted, "Higher quality care is associated with outcomes that all parents want to see…."), even the U.S. Congress generally reflects the view that child care is good, a radical departure from perspectives of several decades ago. Congress may be focusing on the fact that by keeping families together and kids in school, these programs save money in the long run.

There are many shortcomings in the current U.S. child-care system. Clawson and Gerstel call it a "fragmentary patchwork both at the level of the individual child and at the level of the overall system." Publicly funded child-care programs, for example, are restricted to the poor.

The authors also point out that "while most parents believe (or want to believe) that their children receive quality care, standardized ratings find most of the care mediocre and much of it seriously inadequate…. Recent research [also] suggests that the quality of care for young children is poor or fair in well over half of child care settings. This low quality of care, in concert with a model of intensive mothering, means that many anxious mothers privately hunt for high-quality substitutes while trying to ensure they are not really being replaced."

European countries provide thought-provoking alternative models of child care. For example, focusing on differences between the systems available in France and Denmark, the authors find that French child care is intended primarily as early education and is open to all children, regardless of socioeconomic status.

Almost 100 percent of French three-, four-, and five-year-olds are enrolled in the full-day, free écoles maternelles; all are part of the same national system, with the same curriculum, staffed by teachers paid good wages by the same national ministry. Denmark's child care system, on the other hand, offers a "nonschool model," and is intended to aid working parents, not educate children.

The cost of the French child care is not cheap. However in France, child care costs are considered to be a social responsibility and are publicly funded, while in the U.S., parents themselves pay for these services. As Clawson and Gerstel remind us, not caring for our children is in the long term, and probably even in the short term, even more expensive.

Other policies that relate to child care, such as the Family Leave Act, are examined. The authors note that the United States provides far less in the way of family leave than do European countries. European policymakers now also emphasize the numbers of hours parents work as important factors that shape the ways young children are cared for and by whom. Workers in the United States, on average, put in far more hours and weeks than do workers in most European countries.

The article concludes by asking what we could learn from European systems, and what issues need to be considered in reform efforts. Clawson and Gerstel emphasize that these fundamental questions about the role of education, peer group interactions, and parenting in child-care systems "address issues of social equality and force us to rethink deep-seated images of children and parents."