Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog

What Children Need

An interview with Jane Waldfogel

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

print |

"Feminist theorists," wrote sociologist Judith Stacey in 1986, "Have tended to neglect the question of what children need. But this is an issue that feminists should not, indeed cannot, avoid." ("Are Feminists Afraid to Leave Home?," in What Is Feminism, Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley, editors.) Part of the problem -- as feminists and historians of childhood are apt to point out -- is that at any given time, our collective understanding of what children need to thrive is more likely to be informed by ideology, cultural anxieties and sentimental thinking than by careful observation of the growth and development of children in their normal environment. Depending on the prevailing fad, babies have been alternately ignored and coddled as a way to stimulate their right development -- and whatever earlier generations of parents were advised to do is usually rejected as inadequate or appalling by the current one.

Although early child welfare advocates predicted the twentieth century would be the "century of the child," it was not until the 1960s that the study of child development gained formal status as a distinct scientific discipline. Since then, the more robust findings of child development research have been routinely mangled, misrepresented or misconstrued by the media and popular child-rearing experts, leaving parents and the general public at a loss regarding the true nature of children's needs and how best to meet them. Nowhere is this more evident that in debates about the potential effects of non-parental child care on the social and cognitive development of infants and young children.

Jane Waldfogel, a Professor of Social Work and Public Affairs at Columbia University, has written a book that will help feminists -- and everyone else -- separate fact from speculation on the issue of what children in different age groups require for healthy growth and development and what society can do about it. In "What Children Need" (Harvard University Press, 2006), Waldfogel takes a clear-headed, systematic approach to analyzing and summarizing the conclusions of the best available research on families, maternal employment, formal and informal child care, educational outcomes and child health and development from birth to adolescence. Based on this extensive review, she recommends a broad range of public policies to address the real needs of families and children today, including giving parents more flexibility to take time off work to take care of family responsibilities; detaching essential benefits such as health care from employment; increasing the refundable child tax credit; giving parents more options to stay home in the first year of a child's life by providing a year of paid parental leave and expanding the at-home infant care model for low-income parents; improving the quality of care for infants and toddlers by tightening regulations and providing more support for parents to use it; improving the quality of care and education for preschool children by raising the quality of private care and expanding public prekindergarten and Head Start programs; increasing access to high-quality out-of-school programs for school-age children and adolescents; and changing the school calendar for elementary, middle and high school students to better meet their learning needs.

"What Children Need" should be required reading for serious proponents of mothers' and caregivers' economic rights. Although general readers may find sections of the text a bit technical, Waldfogel's style is not overly academic and the research-based evidence she compiles provides straightforward answers to such questions as how young children are affected by mothers' hours of employment and why public policies supporting the economic and job security of workers with family responsibilities also promote the wellbeing of children. Above all, "What Children Need" suggests a compelling way to talk about children's needs, parental preferences and social policy without resorting to the fuzzy terminology of nurturance and moral training.

Jane Waldfogel has written extensively on the impact social policies on the wellbeing of families and children in the United States and abroad. She may be most familiar to MMO readers for her studies on the maternal wage gap and for her reports on the effects of the FMLA on workers and businesses for the U.S. Department of Labor. Her work has appeared in dozens of scholarly journals and publications, including an overview of international policies toward parental leave and child care published in the online Future of Children report (Caring for Infants and Toddlers, Spring/Summer 2001). The MMO interviewed Dr. Waldfogel earlier this month.

MMO: The national dialog about what's best for children often gets mired in cultural debates about ideal family forms and whether young children are more likely to thrive when they have full-time maternal care. What's the advantage of using a research-based approach to assessing children's health and developmental needs, as you do in "What Children Need"?

Jane Waldfogel: In thinking about children and families, people have a tendency to draw on their own personal experiences and assumptions. But we also need to recognize that the world has changed since we adults were children, and that not all families are alike. If we are to make sound decisions about what children need and what we as a society should be doing to help meet children's needs when parents work, we need to be clear both about our values and about the research evidence.

To start with values, there are three core values that underpin our thinking about what's best for children. The first is the importance of respecting choice. Whatever policies we introduce, these policies should, to the extent possible, support families making their own choices about how their children are cared for. A second fundamental principle, and one that sometimes conflicts with choice, is the importance of promoting quality. We now know that the quality of children's care arrangements has a lasting impact on their growth and development. But currently, too many children and youth are in arrangements that are not of good quality. The third key principle is the importance of supporting employment. The work ethic is a widely shared American value, and work is a financial necessity for most parents. Moreover, women's employment is seen by many as key to gender equity and women's well-being.

Articulating these values, however, is not sufficient to tell us what's best for children.  We need to know what the research shows -- about the effects of parental employment, or about the effects of preschool child care or after-school care. To take infant child care as an example, is it good or bad for children to enter non-parental child care at 3 months, as many children in the U.S. do? Saying that we value parental choice, quality care, and supporting employment does not provide the answer to this question. We need to know what the best evidence from research says about how children are affected by entering child care at that age.

I emphasize the point about best evidence because not all research is equally informative. Social scientists agree that where available the strongest evidence comes from controlled experiments, which randomly assign one group, the treatment group, to receive an intervention, and another group, the control group, to not receive it. If the samples are large enough and if the groups have been randomly assigned, then it is possible to measure the effect of an intervention by comparing the change in a given outcome for the treatment group to that for the control group. In the absence of a controlled experiment, the next best option is a "natural experiment," which mimics a laboratory experiment by randomly exposing one group to an intervention. For instance, one state or a few states (the treatment group) might implement a new program for infants, while other states (the control group) do not. If the two groups of states are otherwise comparable, then outcomes for the treatment and control groups can be compared, and the effect of the new program can be gauged.

Often, we lack either a laboratory or natural experiment, in which case we have to rely on observational studies. Such studies take advantage of naturally occurring variation in experiences across individuals and then attempt to measure the impact of those experiences holding all else equal. In the infant care example, we could identify families who used out-of-home child care for their infants and compare them to families who did not. If we could hold all else equal, and compare children who were identical except for the difference in their early child care experience, then we would be able to estimate the effect of early child care. In the real world, however, it is often impossible to hold all else equal. There may be many differences between children who did and did not attend infant child care, and researchers may not be able to control for all of them. For this reason, we have to be very cautious in drawing conclusions from observational studies and should place the most weight on studies that use rigorous methods to test whether the associations founds in observational data are likely to be causal. When studies use rigorous methods, and when several studies all point in the same direction, then we can have greater confidence in them.

forget the black & white mobiles

page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | print |

Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online