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What Children Need

An interview with Jane Waldfogel

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

September 2006

"Feminist theorists," sociologist Judith Stacey wrote 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 in 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 that support the economic and job security of workers with family responsibilities also promote the wellbeing of children. Above all, "What Children Need" suggests a compelling and 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.

MMO: Mass-market parenting advice often stresses the importance of providing a learning-enhanced environment for babies and toddlers -- and parents who prefer a low-key, attentive style of parenting are called "slackers." What does the research you reviewed actually say about the benefits of special enrichment activities for children age zero to three?

Jane Waldfogel: During the 1990s -- heralded as "the decade of the brain" -- a series of well-publicized events informed parents of new advances in brain science that indicated for the first time just how much growth was occurring in the early years and how important early experiences were in that process. While much of what was presented in this decade was correct, some was over-hyped or exaggerated.

One point of confusion has to do with the importance of above-average experiences versus below-average experiences. In translating findings from neuroscientific studies, sometimes results concerning deprivation are used to draw conclusions about enrichment. So, studies showing slower brain development among rats who are placed in deprived environments (cages with nothing at all to play with) are used as evidence to support the idea that providing extra enrichment to children will boost their brain development. Beyond the difficulty of extrapolating from rats (in cages) to babies (in their playpens), there is also the difficulty of assuming that providing extra stimulation will have equal and opposite effects to withdrawing normal stimulation. It could as well be the case that a minimal amount of stimulation is necessary for healthy growth and development, but anything beyond that has no effect, or diminishing effects. Early intervention programs have been shown to have dramatic effects, particularly when they are intensive and high quality and when they serve very disadvantaged children. We also know that placing young children in very deprived environments, such as Romanian orphanages, can do lasting damage. However, the jury is still out on how much extra enrichment in the early years really matters for children whose experiences are in the normal range.

These nuances are often lost in the popular press, as research findings have been rapidly translated into prescriptions that parents should buy particular toys or learning items, or should make sure their children engage in certain activities. What infants need is something more fundamental than the latest toy or CD. After all, generations of children have developed quite well without ever having seen a black and white crib toy, or listening to classical music in utero. As the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development concluded, "there is no scientific evidence that any sort of mobile, toy, computer program, or baby class has a long-term impact on reasoning, intelligence, or learning."

MMO: There's a lack of clarity in popular parenting culture regarding the concepts and qualities of maternal "attachment," "sensitivity" and "responsiveness" -- which are frequently confused with the practice of "full-time" or intensive mothering. Can you explain how maternal attachment, sensitivity and responsiveness are defined and evaluated by researchers? Is there anything in the existing literature about the effects of fathers' attachment, sensitivity and responsiveness on children's health and development?

Jane Waldfogel: The care that young children receive from their parents and other caregivers lays the foundation not just for their physical growth and health but also for their cognitive and emotional growth and development. Parents recognize this and worry about whether they are providing the "right" type of experiences and interactions for their children. 

The bottom line message from developmental psychology and developmental neuroscience is that the most important features of the care children receive in early childhood are its sensitivity and responsiveness. Sensitivity refers to how appropriate the care is to the individual child, while responsiveness has to do with how adaptive it is to changes in the child's needs and status. A caregiver may be warm and well-intentioned, but may nevertheless not provide sensitive and responsive care if she or he is not familiar with the child or is not good at picking up cues from the child about what the child needs right now. Conversely, a caregiver may know this individual child's needs well but if the caregiver is harsh or neglectful in responding to those needs, the care provided will not be sensitive and responsive either. So, sensitivity and responsiveness are attributes both of the caregiver and of the relationship between the caregiver and the child. Both must be in place if the care is to meet the child's needs and enable the child to grow and develop. Sensitive and responsive relationships with the adults who care for them lay the groundwork for infants to grow and develop, both in terms of cognitive and language development, and in terms of emotional and social development. This is true of both mothers and fathers, although most of the research to date has been conducted on mothers

In the social and emotional arena, one of the major developmental tasks for infants is to develop secure attachments to adults who care for them. Secure attachments provide a sense of basic trust and a foundation for the infant to explore the world and form attachments with others. Here, as in other aspects of development, sensitivity and responsiveness are key -- children can only develop secure attachments if their caregivers are knowledgeable about their needs and are responsive to those needs. If parents and other caregivers do not know a child well or can not read a child's cues, or fail to respond warmly and consistently to what a child needs, the child will still be attached to them but that attachment will not be secure. Some children may have an attachment that is ambivalent (reflecting the uneven care they have received to date), while others may have a relationship that is characterized by avoidance (if the care they have received has been harsh or interrupted). These different types of attachment are diagnosed using a laboratory test called the "Strange Situation," developed by Mary Ainsworth. In this test, a mother and infant are brought into the lab, and the mother then leaves the infant and returns, twice (this test could be done with fathers, but typically has been done with mothers). The child's reactions to the two separations and reunions with the mother are coded, and the attachment relationship is then characterized as secure, ambivalent/inconstant, or avoidant.

The importance of attachment first came to the fore in the 1940s and 1950s, when researchers began studying children who were homeless or orphaned during World War II. Reviewing the evidence on these terribly deprived children, British psychologist John Bowlby concluded that in order to develop a secure attachment, an infant had to receive continuous and sensitive care from an individual caregiver round-the-clock for the first year of life. Bowlby was careful to point out that the continuous, sensitive care could be provided by a mother or another consistent caregiver, but his work was widely interpreted as saying that only continuous and uninterrupted mother care would do. Even worse, it was soon forgotten that the evidence on which Bowlby based his conclusions came from studies of institutionalized children (children in orphanages or shelters) who were indeed deeply traumatized by their experiences, not from studies of children with working mothers. And so, attachment theory was taken to suggest that working mothers posed a risk to their children's mental health. Working fathers were not seen as a problem because it was assumed that it was the mother who would, or should, be there to provide the consistent care. 

It was many years later before researchers empirically tested whether and how infants with working mothers differed in their attachment relationships from infants with non-working mothers, and this research did not bear out the dire predictions. Children with working mothers (or fathers) can develop secure attachments to them, just like children with non-working mothers (or fathers). The key lies in how sensitive, responsive, and consistent the parent is.

MMO: The failure of the U.S. to guarantee workers adequate paid time off for parental and sick leave is an urgent issue for American families. Yet the proportion of mothers who return to paid work within 12 months of a child's birth is typically seen as an indicator of women's progress -- and whenever the percentage declines (as it has in the last few years), it's taken as evidence that women have given up on the feminist agenda. However, your research suggests having all parents in the full-time workforce during the first year of a child's life might not be a good way to measure social progress. Can you explain more about the effects of unpaid leave and parental work patterns on the health and developmental outcomes of infants and young children, and what some of the policy implications are?

Jane Waldfogel: The research on child health, cognitive development, and social and emotional well-being provides a clear message about parental employment and the first three years of life. Across all three dimensions, holding all else equal, children do tend to do worse if their mothers work full-time in the first year of life. Negative effects are found on health, cognitive development, and externalizing behavior problems.

But, let me hasten to add, these findings are specific to the first year of life, and to full-time work in that year. Part-time work in the first year, or work in the second and third years, does not have the same effects. 

We need to be careful in interpreting these results, given the lack of data on fathers, and given that in nearly all cases studied, the fathers were either working full-time themselves, or not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time, or a lone mother working full-time. So, their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother. But, they do suggest that children would fare better if families had the option to have one parent home at least part-time in the first year. This of course has immediate policy relevance, particularly given the paltry state of parental leave on offer in the U.S. Our peer nations offer substantially more -- a longer period of leave, typically paid, and for all workers.

The other key message from the research is that across all three years the quality of parental care and the type and quality of child care that the child receives are also very important. Indeed, maternal sensitivity is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development -- more important than parental employment, child care, or other child and family factors. (Unfortunately we don't know how important paternal sensitivity is). And there is a clear relationship between the quality of child care children experience in the first three years of life, and how that care affects children's growth and development. When children are in low-quality care for long hours, their development suffers. When children are in high-quality care, their development is enhanced.

MMO: One of the most distressing sections of "What Children Need" is your overview of the quality of care currently available for infants, toddlers and preschool children in the United States. Studies confirm that high quality child care can benefit children's social development and learning readiness, but the child care available to families today is often of fair or poor quality -- even having a grandparent or close relative caring for a child while parents work doesn't guarantee the child will receive high-quality care. There's been considerable political resistance to approaching child care as a universal family issue -- what are your suggestions for moving child care back into the mainstream of the national policy discussion?

Jane Waldfogel: I'm struck by the phrasing of your question -- the resistance to approaching child care as a universal family issue -- when of course it is a universal family issue, in the sense that every family must make some arrangements for the care of their children, whether by the parents or someone else. But of course you are right, that there has been resistance to making child care more of a public issue, and to providing more universal programs.

I think one way to find common ground on this issue is to emphasize efforts to improve the quality of child care, rather than efforts to place all young children into one form of child care versus another. Particularly when it comes to very young children -- infants and toddlers, under the age of 3 -- parents care a lot about being able to choose the arrangements that are best for their children. But no one would argue with having a wider and better set of choices. 

For slightly older children -- preschoolers age 3 and 4 -- there is a growing consensus about the value of some form of preschool education, but again with parents often wanting some choice about the form and location. A few states now offer universal pre-kindergarten programs for 4 year olds, and many more states are making at least some investment in expanding preschool provision for 4 year olds and even 3 year olds. One of the strongest advocates for expanding preschool is a business group, the Committee for Economic Development, who argue that if we really care about improving the quality of our future workforce, the place to begin is by boosting our investments in today's preschoolers.

Out-of-school care for older children -- school-age children and adolescents -- is also moving up on the public agenda. Half of schools now offer some form of out-of-school care, whether before or after school, up from only one in six just a few decades ago. And these programs are also attracting growing support from city and state governments, as well as foundations.

So, I think the other way to find common ground on this issue is to tap into these many constituencies that already are committed to or supportive of increasing access to high-quality child care and out-of-school care. Parents need to realize that this is not just a family issue, but also an issue for schools, cities and towns, state governments, foundations, and local non-profit and community organizations.

MMO: You conclude that the public school system could be expanded to better meet the needs of children -- particularly by adding universal pre-kindergarten programs but also by extending the school day or school year, and by making more age-appropriate after school programs available through partnerships with other organizations. Can you describe how the research supports expanding and extending public education, and other policy priorities related to the needs of school-age children?

Jane Waldfogel: Although after-school programs have expanded in recent years, a surprisingly large number of school-age children and youth do not participate in them. For some children the issue is quality -- the programs are too babyish or boring, or do not feel safe. For others, the issue is cost or location -- programs often rely entirely or mostly on parent fees, and parent transportation. Some children who do not participate in after-school programs do just fine -- they are home with their parents or other caregivers, or are involved in activities in the community. But many children are on their own after school, coming home alone or hanging out with peers. Although being home alone is often not problematic, some children who are home alone report being lonely or bored, while hanging out with peers has been found to be associated with worse school and behavior outcomes for children and youth. At the same time, the growing evidence base on after-school programs indicates that while such programs currently are a mixed bag, the best of the programs can have many positive impacts in terms of children's health and development. So, it certainly would be prudent to expand the availability of high-quality programs for school-age children and youth.

One way to do so is to expand the number of high-quality and affordable after-school programs located at or near schools. Recent experimental evaluations indicate that high-quality out-of-school programs can improve outcomes for school age children and adolescents. Successful programs have ranged from one-on-one mentoring, to programs that focus on keeping youth on track academically, to service-oriented programs that aim to improve social as well as educational outcomes. One likely mechanism through which these programs operate is by helping young people develop positive relationships with trusted adults (as well as peers). Young people who have a good relationship with an adult (a mentor, coach, teacher, activity group leader) are less likely to develop problem behaviors. And having a good relationship with a mentor can help young people develop a better relationship with their parents as well.

The other way to expand high-quality provisions for school-age children and youth would be to experiment with extending the school day and year. American school children typically attend school for about 6 hours a day, 180 days per year, a schedule that has not changed since public schools were founded nearly 200 years ago. But the world has changed hugely in that time. We no longer live in a primarily agricultural society, and children no longer need to be home after school and in summers to help their families with the harvest. Nor does our country consist mainly of families with stay-at home parents who can look after children after school and during school vacations. At the same time, the academic material that children need to master to be full participants in today and tomorrow's world has grown exponentially.

Other nations tend to keep their schools open longer than we do -- 37 hours per week in Luxembourg, 44 in Belgium, 53 in Denmark, and 60 in Sweden. And many countries have a longer school year. Children in Canada, the UK, Finland, and Norway go to school 10 more days per year -- an additional two weeks. Children in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands are in school 20 more days than the US -- an additional month. Children in Luxembourg have the longest school year -- 32 days (more than six weeks) longer than in the U.S. These countries tend to have shorter school vacations, and in particular, shorter summer holidays. We know from research that children lose ground over the long American summer holiday, and that children from the lowest-income families lose the most ground.

And, American youth could certainly use more time in school. Young Americans lag behind their counterparts in other countries in math and science. In tests administered in 39 countries in 2003, American 8th graders were out-scored in math literacy by students in 20 of the other 28 advanced industrialized countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and 3 of 10 non-OECD countries, and were out-scored in science literacy by students in 15 OECD countries and 3 non-OECD countries. American 8th graders scored even more poorly -- out-scored by students in 22 OECD countries and 3 non-OECD countries -- in problem-solving, an area that requires students to apply skills in reading, math, and science to solve real-world problems. In today's increasingly technological and global economy, such low levels of math and science attainment will place American youth at a disadvantage.

So, there are good reasons to consider extending the school day and year. And, many cities and towns are experimenting with just such efforts. The city of San Diego has a "6 to 6" Program, available to every elementary and middle-school age child in the City, which includes activities such as tutoring, mentoring, and homework assistance, arts and crafts, performing arts, music and drama, sports, recreation, and snacks. Several school districts in Massachusetts are now offering an extended school day, using the time to offer additional instruction in reading, math, and science, as well as enrichment activities. And some school districts have also begun experimenting with longer school years. About a dozen states have passed legislation extending their school year, and others are developing year-round schooling models. These are promising experiments and worth watching closely.

MMO: Even though there is substantial popular support for policies such as paid parental and medical leave and single-payer health care, grass roots advocates are constantly reminded that pushing for more and better support for U.S. working families and children is a political non-starter. What more can parents do to move these issues forward?

Jane Waldfogel: The first step is for parents to recognize how much consensus there is about these issues. For all the talk about "mommy wars," there is actually a lot of agreement among American parents about what children need and how best to meet those needs. Although most Americans think it would be best if they could care for their children themselves, particularly when they are young, most also recognize that many parents must work, and are supportive of efforts to improve the quality of child care and its affordability. Nearly 70 percent agree that it is unrealistic for most families to have a parent stay at home, and over 80 percent agree that there is a serious shortage of affordable and good quality child care. Parents are particularly concerned about the safety of child care settings and the risk of abuse or neglect. A majority support quality improvement initiatives such as tightening standards and expanding Head Start. So, although Americans do value the primary role to be played by a child's own parents, they also are increasingly in agreement that parents can't do it all. A resounding majority -- nearly 80 percent -- agree that it is much harder to be a parent today, and nearly as many say that "raising children is the responsibility of parents with the support of others in their communities."

What specific steps can parents take? First, parents need to be alert and informed consumers. The sad truth is that many child care and out-of-school care programs are not as good as they should be. If parents speak up and demand better-quality programs, this can change.

Second, parents need to speak up in the workplace. For too long, working parents have been told that the key to success in the workplace is to not mention family responsibilities. Better to say you had to take the car to the garage, the conventional wisdom goes, than to say you had to take the child to the dentist. But, if parents don't speak up and say that they need time off, or don't take advantage of time off when it is offered, then the workplace culture will never change. Parents who feel that they would like to spend more time with their families are not alone. Today's parents really do view the world differently than their parents' generation did. They are more likely to prioritize family over work and to want to spend more time at home. Yet, like their parents' generation, they fear that expressing those views at the workplace will hurt their careers. Here, the old adage "safety in numbers" really does hold true -- if all parents speak up, it is harder for an employer to single anyone out, and it is more likely that the workplace culture will change.

Third, parents need to speak up in their communities and in their polling places. Family issues have sometimes become hot political issues and can do so again -- but only if parents speak up. In Florida, parent pressure moved a reluctant legislature to enact a universal prekindergaten law, while in California a well-orchestrated grassroots campaign persuaded the governor to sign the nation's first paid family and medical leave law.

Fourth, as I mentioned earlier, parents need to look for allies and build alliances. Support for better quality programs for children can be found in many places -- businesses, city and town halls, state governments, foundations, and local non-profit and community organizations. Today's children are the key to our future, and we all have a vested interest in them.

There is now a greater awareness and understanding than any time in the past of how important investments in children are, and this new recognition has greatly increased the public's support for investments in children -- whether in the form of paid leave for new parents or universal preschool or more widely available after-school programs. There is also a much stronger evidence base. We now know better than ever before what programs will help. So there is no excuse for waiting. The time to act is now.

mmo : september 2006

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