179. "Institutionalized Child-Care: Can It Fill Parenting Deficit?" The Atlanta Constitution, (September 14, 1988). Reprinted in Hartford Courant, (September 15, 1988); The Boston Globe, (October 7, 1988); The Baltimore Sun, (October 11, 1988); Newsday, (October 17, 1988); The Philadelphia Inquirer, (October 23, 1988); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, (November 19, 1988); Des Moines Register, (November 29, 1988).

America is increasingly doing to its children what it has done to its elderly, and to worse effect: separating them out of the family and warehousing them in poorly supervised institutions.

Child (or “day”) care, the slogan of the day, is about to be given a grand new push by the welfare reform act. Liberals and conservatives appear finally ready to support legislation that would get “people” off welfare and recognize the “new” concept of normal family life.

The “people” they are talking about are largely mothers of young children, more than half of the children less than 1 year old. The “new normal” family are single parents. The state now is ready to offer these mothers to put their children in child-care centers, if they will get off the dole and work outside the home.

Weaning people off welfare is, of course, very desirable. However, setting up massive child-care institutions requires care.

First, there is the matter of recognizing, and in the process further legitimizing and promoting, the breakup of the two-parent family. What are the implications of this rift?

Social science studies on the subject are utterly inconclusive. For every study that shows a single parent can properly raise a child (with or without the help of day care) there is one that shows serious deficiencies in the child’s resulting character, school achievements, compliance with the law, work record and so on.

Historically, the overwhelming majority of children were brought up by two-parent families. Indeed, proper child rearing is such a labor-intensive undertaking that most cultures draw on additional parenting by grandparents, other kin, tribal or community members. (In India, it used to be said, that a child is never set down.) Other cultures employed - in addition to two parents - nannies, wet nurses and slaves, among others.

There is little, if any, precedent for effectively rearing a child with the small amount of time, labor and energy a single parent can invest after a full day at work and the regular household chores.

Those who would now “trade” further increases in the labor force for less time and investment in parenting, will have a lot of explaining to do to the next generation of Americans. How can anybody seriously complain about our youngsters’ weak character, reflected in wide drug use, a low work ethic at school and otherwise, rampant Me-ism - and seek to reduce further the opportunities for parental presence, let alone, education?

Ultimately, one must wonder whether our society would be better off if, say, 3 million more people make root beer, deodorants and even ball bearings, but 3 million less attended to their young children? Or, if we got 3 million parents to work outside the home, and hire a million-and-a-half workers to take care of these children (any but their own?)

Can institutionalized child care fill the parenting deficit? Child care provided by thousands of small, unprofessional, poorly supervised institutions openly invites the same basic abuses so common in nursing homes.

Young children, like the infirm old, are not competent. They do not understand “buyer beware;”they cannot choose among institutions; judge the quality of the care; act as credible witnesses against abuse; or pressure “management” to be more caring. Overworked parents are often satisfied just to find a place to dump their children (or elders).

What is to be done? To the extent possible, flex-time and part-time jobs should be used to keep both parents in the parenting business, at least until the children’s basic character is formed at age 4. Also, gainful work at home should be made easier.

And, child-care “institutions” should be formed, governed, and in part staffed by parents to provide natural, built-in effective supervision of the institutions. Supervision is badly needed because the typically low pay attracts poorly qualified personnel. To attract better staff, salaries would have to be provided that meet or surpass the pay of many of th women who seek to deposit their children in these institutions.

One way to “build-in” parental involvement is to require that for every five families served by a child-care parent-run co-op, one parent - by turn, lot or pay - be on the staff.

Finally, children older than 4 should be enrolled in schools with an extended day and annual calendar. At least in schools, we have professional staff and built-in community supervision.

Other policies may well be needed. The country should, though, be put on notice that we have a tendency to cause a lot of harm on one front as we advance on another.

An effective policy must be able to combine at least three goals: get people off the dole and keep as much parenting as possible alive and active in the family and ensure parental involvement in child-care institutions. Otherwise, recent reports of the sexual abuse of children in day-care centers are nothing but the forerunner of many other forms of abuse and neglect by poorly trained, poorly supervised people who are entrusted with child-care, but who do not care about children.

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