Working Parents: Your Attitude About Child Care Can Make a Difference
By Jeryl R. Matlock PhD, Purdue Global Adjunct Faculty
The first three weeks that Paula took her three-year old daughter Melanie to the child care center, Melanie cried and clung to her mother. Paula—upset by her child’s crying—was anxious and stayed at the center to comfort Melanie. The longer Paula stayed, the more anxious both she and Melanie became. Several times, Paula expressed feelings of guilt to Melanie’s teacher at leaving her. After about 15 minutes, the teacher gently suggested that Paula leave, and reassured her that she would hold Melanie for a while until the little girl stopped crying.
Stories such as the one above are common although mothers have been in the work force for many years and fathers have taken a more active role in parenting. Parents continue to have concerns about child care as it is difficult to leave one’s child with someone else. In addition, studies on the effects of child care have historically produced varying results.
An early study by this author found no significant differences between the social and emotional development of middle class preschoolers cared for at home and those who attended quality child care programs. The later results of the Study of Early Child Care—performed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 2001—“sparked a firestorm with its findings that 4 ½-year-olds who had spent more than 30 hours a week in child care were more demanding, more aggressive, and more noncompliant than others, regardless of the type or quality of care, the family's socioeconomic status, or the sensitivity of the mother's parenting.”* After following the same group of children through third grade, the Institute issued a new report stating that they “continued to score higher in math and reading skills, and that their higher likelihood of aggressive behavior had dissipated. It also found that they still had poorer work habits and social skills” although the effects were minimal.*
What can working parents do? Because the research on the effects of child care continues to vary, it is important that parents increase the role they play by focusing on how to make the best of this experience for their child and for themselves. This can be accomplished by adopting a positive attitude towards placing their child in care, and by learning how to choose quality care.
Parental Attitudes Toward Care
Child development theory has shown that it is quite natural for young children to get upset and cry when their parents leave them with others. When they cry, they are experiencing what is known as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety may occur the first few weeks a child is left in a child care center, and is the result of a healthy attachment between the child and its parents. Some children may cry for even longer periods of time, depending on many factors in their lives. For example, a new baby in the family or a move to a new home may affect some children’s ability to adjust. If a child enters a center unable to speak English, the child may take longer to adjust because learning both a new language and a new culture while coping with parent-child separation could prove difficult.
Knowing that some crying is normal and indicates a healthy attachment to parents may make it easier for parents to avoid situations like the one described in the beginning of this article. In fact, a positive attitude by parents toward leaving their children in child care has shown to be one of the most important factors in helping children adjust to care outside the home. Although it is okay for one or both parents to spend some time in the classroom to help their child feel more comfortable, soon that parent will need to return to work. The parent’s attitude towards leaving the child in the center is crucial. Children are very perceptive. If a parent shows anxiety about leaving, the child could take on that anxiety with their own.
After visiting with the child in the classroom for a day or two, the parent should give the child a hug, reassure the child that they are coming back, and then leave. The crying will stop much sooner if the child learns that the parent must leave, as part of the crying is designed to do just that. If a child has not adjusted after a few weeks (for some children, it may take even longer), it may be time to reevaluate the situation. Other factors such as a conflict between a child and his or her teacher or the quality of the care may be a problem.
For tips on choosing quality child care, The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) offers “Tips for Parents Choosing Quality Child Care.” http://oldweb.naeyc.org/about/releases/2009330.asp
* Lewin, T, 3 New Studies Assess Child Care, The New York Times, accessed on the Internet at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/01/national/01child.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0