Is Child Care Bad for Kids? 


By Nancy L. Marshall, Ed.D.
From the Fall/Winter 2003 Research & Action Report


Recent headlines have once again raised the question of whether child care is bad for children. After decades of research, advocacy, program development, and policy, what do we really know about child care? Before addressing this question, it is important to talk about the larger question: what do we really know about women’s (and men’s) lives? The question of child care can only be answered as part of a discussion about how women and men meet the two challenges of both raising the next generation and providing economically for themselves and their families.

Over the past century we experienced dramatic changes in the United States, including a shift at the turn of the 20th century from an industrializing society, in which few women held paid jobs, to a postindustrial society in which paid employment is the norm for women. This change has been most dramatic among mothers of children under the age of six; as recently as 1975, only 39 percent of mothers of young children were employed, compared to 64 percent in 2001. The last century also saw dramatic changes in how we raise the next generation. With the rise of dual-earner families, single-parent families, lesbian and gay families, and so on, families no longer follow a “one size fits all” pattern.

Outside the family, universal schooling is now taken for granted, at least from first grade through high school. But our societal response to caring for younger children has been less consistent. Formal child care has been available during some time periods (such as World War II) or for some families (Head Start for low-income children), but when advocates call for public funding for child care for all children, controversy erupts.

This is not new; it happened in the 60s and 70s, and it is happening now. Why does this controversy continue? I would argue that the question of child care is problematic because it is tied to the question of women’s labor. Even though employment is the norm for women now, U.S. society continues to maintain the interlocking myths that women are the natural caregivers of young children and that men must work long hours to support their families. This is the modern version of the 1950s myth that women belong in the home and men belong in the workplace.

In the midst of this new/old controversy, policy makers and activists have generated a variety of responses to these societal changes for women, children, and men. We now have a patchwork of policies and programs that provide some resources for some families. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows some women to take unpaid time off for the birth or adoption of a child. However, the restrictions of the FMLA mean that this option is limited to only certain groups of women. Still under discussion is whether family leave should be expanded for longer than the 12 weeks currently available under the FMLA, whether leave should be paid so that families do not have to choose between income and time with an infant, and whether the FMLA should be expanded to cover employees who are currently exempt, such as employees of small businesses. Even if such changes were implemented, the FMLA still wouldn’t address the every day conflicts between parenting and employment, such as when a child is too sick to go to child care or school but not sick enough for a parent to take FMLA leave. This raises questions about the nature of paid work and the workplace. How does the workplace need to change, not just for women but also for men?

Another topic of debate is the balance between extending the availability of child care versus raising standards for the quality of child care. There is clear evidence that higher quality child care is good for children, but raising standards of care costs money—funds which, in a tight economy, could instead go to increasing the number of families who can afford to use child care. How do we balance these competing needs? Do we have to accept a trade-off between availability and quality?

What is the role of research in answering these questions? We know from research that quality child care, especially for three- and four-year-olds, is one factor that helps to prepare children for schools in the 21st century. We also know that when parents have flexible jobs that allow them to respond to everyday parenting needs, they feel less conflict between the demands of family and employment. And we know that women’s employment is crucial to maintaining the economic wellbeing of families and to promoting gender equity. But there are still many unanswered questions.

Where does this leave parents, policy makers, and concerned citizens? First, it is important to remember the links between employment and child care. If our workplaces require us to work 50 to 60 hours a week, that means long hours of child care, which may be too stressful for some children, although just fine for most children. Is the solution for mothers to stay home? Or is the solution a rethinking of the workplace—how long we work, when and where we work, and how the work is distributed within a workplace or a family? Or is there something about the child care setting that needs to change? Second, it is important to remember that the research shows that families are the most important influence in a child’s life in the early years, whether or not the child is in child care. Support for families, therefore, will also support children. Third, while researchers talk about group trends, individual children may have vastly different experiences. Finally, research is not infallible. It is a tool, but only one tool to be used in thinking about choices for our own lives and for our society as a whole. Policy decisions are ultimately as much about power as they are about research, and individual family decisions should be as much about the circumstances of that family, their options and preferences. Research can help to inform both personal and policy decisions but should never determine them.

Nancy L. Marshall, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist and an associate director of the Center for Research on Women. She currently directs several studies at the Center including the Massachusetts site of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, the Massachusetts Early Care and Education Study, and the Maine Cost and Quality Study. To learn more about her work, visit

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