More on Toddlers (Daycare and Feminism)

by Harry on November 30, 2003

Since Chris and Kieran have been posting on this I thought I’d weigh in, and perhaps be a little more politically incorrect. (See also the interesting article by Katherine Quarmby in last month’s Prospect, temporarily available to non-subscribers) The left tends to emphasize two things about child-rearing:
1) The desirability of having men and women more-or-less equally involved in the hands-on aspects of rearing from very early on;
2) The desirability of women facing roughly equal prospects in the labor market as men.

The preferred solution in practice has been daycare-for-pay. In most developed countries this has been commercial daycare; somewhat subsidized in Europe, and hardly subsidized in the US (the main subsidy in the US is a capped tax deduction, which, of course, benefits high-income earners more than low income-earners). Daycare-for-pay helps with 2), especially for professional women. It does absolutely nothing to address 1), because almost all daycare-for-pay is done by women, typically low-income women, and because women continue to do the vast majority of the child-rearing that continues to be done in the home (less, proportionately, than they used to, but not much less). My understanding is that this inequality is pretty much universal. Of course, this inequality is one reason why daycare-for-pay only helps with, and does not solve, 2).
Why should we aim for equal-split of childrearing at all (goal 1)? The reasons for this are often not well-articulated. One possible reason is that it is thought essential for achieving goal 2). Let’s suppose for a moment that it is essential for that goal. That it is desirable only follows if we assume that men would do a good-enough job at child-rearing that the children so reared would not be very badly raised. Lots of the conservative animus toward goal 2) is premised on the idea that men simply won’t do a good enough job at child rearing if goal 1) is achieved. The available evidence that men who rear children do an ok job is not reassuring. There aren’t that many men who do it, and almost all of them have exhibited a strong will to do it (since it contravenes our social norms of masculinity); so there’s a lot of self-selection. Whatever the reason for seeking 1) it will only have force, though, on the assumption that men are adequately good child rearers — and that seems to me just an assumption (one I find appealing, but for which I have no more evidence than its deniers have evidence against it). Anyway, there must be some threshold such that if male caring generally falls below it we would want to abandon goal 1). (Click here for Dick Arneson’s excellent article arguing against equal split.)
What the left talks about much less than 1) and 2) is the desirability of having parents stay at home with and raise their own children. This is desirable for two reasons. The first is that there is some evidence that parents are better rearers of children than all but very good daycare providers. The response I sometimes hear — ‘we should make all daycare good daycare’ is politically irrelevant right now, and maybe always will be — because good daycare is incredibly expensive, and if we are going to aim for that, why not just aim for having parents rear children well? The second reason its desirable for parents to stay home with kids is simply that being with one’s own children is intensely rewarding and pleasurable. Not for everyone, and not every kid. But for the vast majority of parents and kids. This is one way in which the focus on academics is slightly misleading. Most work, including a good deal of well-paid professional work, is neither intrinsically rewarding nor intrinsically valuable. My conjecture is that many, if not most, women who work full time throughout their children’s toddler-hood have made a bad trade off — they’d have a more fulfilling time at home with the kids. Or at least, the short term trade off is bad — they may be gaining longer-term financial security which may make it worthwhile. But if so that is something that family policy should try to combat by trying to bring what is best for the mother in the long term into alignment with what is best for her in the short term. Certainly, as a society we should not be trying to get people out to work; we should be trying to design incentives so that staying home with one’s children in their early years is a sensible option.
We used to do this by a combination of structural incentives and social norms: essentially by excluding women with children from lots of labor markets and encouraging them to believe that they should stay at home with kids. Huge cost for goal 2 obviously. The trend away from that has focused exclusively on getting women into the labor force and not at all on getting men out of it. Complete failure to address goal 1.
How could we simultaneously achieve the 3 putatively desirable goals I’ve described — viz, having men and women equal participants in child rearing; ensuring equality of opportunity for women; and encouraging parents to stay at home with pre-school children? I’m tempted to end the post here, since anything I say is going to be conjectural and subject to lots of objections. But in that spirit here’s some suggestions (some originate with me, others with people I’ve talked to, but I’m not going to attribute them since they are conversational not literary):

a) Design family leave policies so that parents who share child-rearing equally in the early stages get a ‘bonus’. So, eg, if only one parent uses the leave they get only 1 year. But if both take an equal amount of leave they get 18 months each.

b) Diminish the ‘child-rearing penalty’ on whoever stays at home by i) giving parents 50% ownership right in each other’s income and accumulated retirement benefits (including both state and occupational retirement accounts) in the years in which their children are pre-schoolers and ii) paying the ‘stay-at home’ parent’s retirement contributions out of the general fund during the period in which they stay at home.

c) Temporarily (until a 50-50 split in child-rearing is achieved) paying men more to stay at home to raise children than women. So, for example, we might decide to pay men 75% salary for the year they stay home, and women only 50%.

d) Alternative to c): pay the couple a fixed percentage of their previous combined salary regardless of who stays home and who works. (As things stand men tend to earn more than the women with whom they have children so the couple forgoes less income by having the woman stay at home — this proposal would mitigate that disincentive for men to stay home). I prefer this to 3 because it is less sexist; but on the other hand it is less likely to achieve gender neutral child-rearing.



sue 12.01.03 at 12:36 am

I was worried for a while during the discussion, but cannot disagree with the four proposals you offer at the end. (As a female academic-job-seeking married mother of a toddler, if you care about standpoints.)

Interestingly, proposal B (50% ownership of all income and assets) was the default perception (not always legally, natch) in earlier generations. Whether they wanted jobs outside the home, women felt their husbands’ income was family income, and budgeted for needs and luxuries accordingly. Now I have trouble feeling entitled to money that I haven’t earned above providing for necessities, despite equal contributions to the family obligations.

My one complaint? Please stop assuming that one needs to settle the “who is better” questions for all time, for all individuals, in order to tackle the social/political/economic inequalities and non-optimalities. It’s hard to be a parent, and neither men nor women are naturally good at it with no experience. All are capable of making the sacrifices of time and sleep. Choosing which parent mops up vomit at 3AM is far more like a game of chicken (or maybe a prisoner’s dilemma) than some sociobiological tale of sex-specific care instincts would have it. Neither day care nor full-time parenting will always be best. How about policies that simply make childcare more than a sarvation-wage job – by parents or caregivers? There is even a large literature out there on the subject…


Laura 12.01.03 at 12:46 am

“How could we simultaneously achieve the 3 putatively desirable goals I’ve described — viz, having men and women equal participants in child rearing; ensuring equality of opportunity for women; and encouraging parents to stay at home with pre-school children?”

Love your three goals and love that you’ve put them together like that.

Your solutions would never fly here where maternity leave = 3 months of unpaid leave and most offices don’t have paternity leave.

Some more moderate solutions:
– put pressure on businesses to offer paternity leave
– offer more part time work opportunities that can transition back to full time work.
– provide childcare tax credits for parents who stay at home
– provide social security credits for parents who stay at home
– support research that shows the benefit of raising children at home
– provide univeral healthcare (insurance is one main reason why individuals have to work full time)

Also, I’m seeing a lot more men staying home with the kids. (But we live in NYC, so I don’t know if we’re typical.) Men do an excellent job raising their kids. I am actually shocked that this is still a matter of debate.


Meli 12.01.03 at 1:49 am

Actually I have found a lot of deeply caring daycare providers out there, and they are not the most expensive ones. Why would they be, when they’re doing housework, which (for women of a certain age) they’ve been socialized to do without expecting monetary reward.

Laura, the tax/SSI credit and healthcare suggestions are great. Let me add: end Wal-Mart economic theory. If you can only cut expenses by forcing store managers to do illegal things to their workers, then it ain’t productivity. It’s the same concept as demanding of an employee that s/he have a stay-home wife, reliable car and affordable housing.

Would someone please post to Crooked-timber as soon as this occurs – I’d hate to miss it…


drapetomaniac 12.01.03 at 1:54 am

D is the only choice that doesn’t give me the willies — that actually seems like it is freeing people up to make choices rather than pushing them around.

The notion of giving more leave if both parents are motivated at parenting is positively nightmarish, it punishes kids further for having a parent who doesn’t want to stay home.

But as for your original point about fathers not wanting to parent, honestly most women who have any option to unload parenting do so. You only have to go as far as the park and see all the women with natural tans minding white babies to know it.

There was that (anthro?) book about a big corp in upstate NY with generous childcare policies that few employees took because they *preferred* working with its rewards to dull domestic work without a regular system of bonuses.


sue 12.01.03 at 2:55 am

Drapetomaniac writes: “You only have to go as far as the park and see all the women with natural tans minding white babies to know it.”

A friend of mine, with olive skin, gave birth to five lovely pale, blonde kids who resemble her husband. Boy does she hate it when she goes to the park and everyone assumes she’s the nanny.

a minor correction, with respect, to a thoughtful comment.


Chris Bertram 12.01.03 at 8:45 am

Great post Harry. A memory tells me that there’s some relevant thinking on this in Alan Carling’s _Social Division_ somewhere.


Gregg 12.01.03 at 12:50 pm

Lots of the conservative animus toward goal 2) is premised on the idea that men simply won’t do a good enough job at child rearing if goal 1) is achieved.

Oh, please don’t credit conservatives with that much gumption. They encounter the concept of women in paid employment, and think “bad, bad, bad”. How difficult is this to accept? – they aren’t nice people and they really don’t think about things as deeply as you suggest.

I mean, their biggest under-40 champion (and just about their only female champion) in the US media, is on record as believing that she herself (and all other women) shouldn’t even have the vote.


Andrew Boucher 12.01.03 at 2:33 pm

I could have missed something, but at first blush there seems to be a lacuna in the argument for 1) which is brought out by solution 3). Solution 3) proposes to pay men more than woman to stay at home. That seems to make sense only if 1) – sexual split in childraising – is *better* than the status quo – where women do most of the child raising tasks. That is, if it’s not better, then why institute a policy which has a greater cost?

However, I think you have argued at best that 1) is only as good as the status quo. (Men can be just as good as women in child raising; but they are not better at it.)

So, again unless I have missed something, you still need to explain why 1) is not just desirable, but more desirable than the status quo.


zaoem 12.01.03 at 3:01 pm

Just a few of the many objections I could make. First, if professionalizing childcare is politically irrelevant, paying men 75% of their wages to stay at home is doubly so. Second, there is no conclusive evidence at all that daycare is “bad for children.” Studies in places like Sweden and France tend to show quite the opposite, whereas in other countries the results are always mixed. Third, there is VERY conclusive evidence that being out of the labor force is extremely damaging in terms of the long term wage gap, job satisfaction and overall life satisfaction. I don’t mean to say that we should force every mother into the labor force, but there IS an intrinsic social and economic value to being inserted in the labor force.


harry 12.01.03 at 5:45 pm

Thanks for the ref Chris. Drapetomaniac — the book is, I’m pretty sure, Arlie Hochschild’s The Time Bind. But my reading is a bit different (the location of the company was Georgia, so we may be thinking of a different one). The interesting issue was that women and men both refrained from taking such policies because they preferred working to family time. But they preferred working because they found family time so stressful, because they worked so much that they were not putting enough work into their domestic relationships for them to be rewarding. And their workmates were not demanding the kinds of things of them that our intimates demand of us. My observation is that it is a common problem — real relationships suffer under the pressure of long working hours, as a result of which working seems preferable to dealing with one’s real relationships. There’s also a brilliant discussion pertaining to this in Fred Hirsch’s *Social Limits to Growth* — Chapter 6 entitled The Economics of Bad Neighbours.

Two more things. I didn’t mean to be arguing for 1) Andrew, I just assumed it for the purposes of discussion. I am more worried about it than Sue thinks I should be, for a couple of reasons. A) this might sound silly, but a good friend keeps reminding me of the freudian view that an integrated personality needs the conditions provided by female-dominated parenting, and I simply don’t know enough about emotional development to reject that out of hand. B) my observation is that other things being equal men are generally much less enthused than women to be intimately involved in the lives of their very young children. Autobiographically my wife and I observe equal split (I got her assent before writing that) and I find men’s lack of enthusiasm about intimacy with their very young children about as incomprehensible as I would find a preference for eating vomit or watching American Football; but I realise the latter at least is widespread and that my own family situation is eccentric (eg: choosing which parent wipes up the vomit at 3 am is a highly competitive process and although I usually get there first, she is rarely far behind). But I do think that soemthing like 1) is a prerequisite for soemthing like 2), and something like 2) is a very important principle, important enough that achieving 1) would be a big improvement on the status quo even if men are only as good as women at raising children. But if they are much worse 1) would be much worse for children.

Second, I realise the proposals are utopian in some sense — they are supposed to be — I’m trying to think out what would have some success, rather than what we could do about it right now, and also trying to make proposals that are no specific to a particular country’s system. So political relevance does not bother me in this post, though I appreciate its general importance, and thank Laura and Sue for help on it.

Zaoem, I know that the evidence on daycare is variable, especially across countries, and that continental Europe is better at this, as at everything else that matters, than the US and UK. But I dind’t say that it was bad for children, just that lots of daycare was not as good as parents, suitably arranged, would be. And I agree that long-term absence from the workforce is bad news. It would be less bad news if more people were doing it. And the fact that it is bad news is another reasonf ro wanting eqaul split, since people might be more fullfilled if both parents could go part-time while sharing staying home with the children.


zaoem 12.01.03 at 6:28 pm

“Second, I realise the proposals are utopian in some sense — they are supposed to be”

Fine, but if this is so, then you cannot dismiss alternative proposals for being “politically irrelevant.”

Continental examples that have worked well include things like professionalizing the daycare sector and allowing both parents to work one or two days a week less for a limited amount of time, thus not getting parents completely out of the workforce or childrearing.


Ken 12.01.03 at 7:57 pm

“But as for your original point about fathers not wanting to parent, honestly most women who have any option to unload parenting do so. You only have to go as far as the park and see all the women with natural tans minding white babies to know it.”

But you only have to go as far as the nearest divorce court to see a counterexample. You’ll see women fighting tooth and nail to get sole custody and to limit the father’s visitation as much as possible, even going so far as to take a “How DARE You?” attitude at fathers who actually have the temerity to fight for more equitable arrangements.

“provide univeral healthcare (insurance is one main reason why individuals have to work full time)”

Or better yet, decouple health insurance from employment entirely, by removing the tax advantages of getting insurance from the company store. Then the difference between full time work and part time work is only the pay differential, not the pay differential plus an entire family health insurance policy.


clew 12.01.03 at 10:48 pm

Solution c) seems unfair to me; or at least, unfair without the symmetrical policy of paying women half again the going wage to pursue jobs in which they’re currently underrepresented.

I agree with bunches of people that making it possible for, say, two 25-hour-a-week jobs to keep a family in the middle class would help a great deal. (And we might not have to worry about arts subsidies if one 25-hour-a-week jobs would, accordingly, pay for healthcare, one retirement and some welding supplies.)


Andrew Boucher 12.02.03 at 12:42 pm

“I didn’t mean to be arguing for 1) Andrew, I just assumed it for the purposes of discussion.”

No problem then. Assume away! But then of course you give your argument:

“But I do think that soemthing like 1) is a prerequisite for soemthing like 2), and something like 2) is a very important principle, important enough that achieving 1) would be a big improvement on the status quo even if men are only as good as women at raising children.”

And I’m afraid I’m not convinced of the force of the argument. Lots of issues come up (why is 2 so desirable that society should be re-engineered to achieve 1? are “prospects” opportunity or results, and how desirable is each case? …), you’re more aware of them than me, so I’ll stop here.


Tishie 12.03.03 at 2:43 am


The reason that #1 is desirable is because it is fair to women. Many women want to work outside of the home and don’t want to remain solely or primarily responsible for the housework and childrearing — not while there is another perfectly capable parent in the home.

The reason #2 is important enough to require the re-engineering of this society is that women want and deserve equality. Women want equal access to the social and financial rewards of our culture. Women want equal access to the workforce, equal pay once they are there, and equal division of labor at home.

You ask if that is better than the status quo. Better for whom? Men? Some would say no, because they don’t want to pick up the slack at home or see more women in positions of power at work. I would say yes, because it offers men more choices. Better for women? Yes. The more options, the better.


With regard to the suggestion to pay men more to stay home, would this include paying women more to work outside the home?

If we valued the work that women do in this society, women would make as much as men and therefore there wouldn’t always be such a “good reason” for her to be the one to give up the work when the children arrive. It would be better for children, because the parent who wants to stay home (and therefore would presumably do a better job at it) could stay home. I know of several couples who do things traditionally, but if money weren’t an issue, the man would be the one at home. Instead, as soon as women enter a field in large numbers, the pay drops. Not to mention that pesky pay gap.

Incidentally, whether interrupting a career to stay home for a few years is more rewarding than taking a shorter break and then continuing to work outside the home depends entirely upon the individual. Some women feel trapped and unfulfilled at home all day and become quite depressed or feel worthless as a result. This is not an exaggeration: I actually don’t know a single women IRL who is happy at a SAHM; they all do it because they feel they should. Anecdotal, to be sure, but I feel safe in assuming that there are more than a few other cases similar to this around the world. I believe that children benefit from having happy, fulfilled parents who are excited to pick them up from their quality childcare. I don’t believe they benefit from staying at home all day with a depressed mother.

Are men making a poor tradeoff when they “decide” to continue working rather than staying home for a few years?

If being at home all day with toddlers and being fully responsible for all of the repetitive housework were so rewarding, I think we’d find that patriarchal cultures had evolved such that men would be the nearly exclusive recipients of this honor. Yet, the opposite is the case. Why?


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.03.03 at 7:50 am

As for the 50/50 ownership of assets and income, so long as the couple is married I think that is the state of the law in community property states. Or am I misunderstanding the 50/50 concept?


harry 12.04.03 at 6:59 pm


thanks for that. Basically, to your question
‘Are men making a poor tradeoff when they “decide” to continue working rather than staying home for a few years?’ I think the answer is yes. Not all men (as not all women). But I think work is pretty lousy for lots of people (including lots of professional people) and being around kids, at least in the right circumstances, is rewarding and fullfilling. But I do agree with the person who said that it might be more fulfilling if combined with part-time work, and think that we should have pretty stringent (and stringently enforced) laws forcing employers to make that much easier (for men and women).

I should have been clearer, though, about the kind of trade off people ‘ought to be’ in a position to make. Women forgoe a tremendous amount fo future income by staying home with kids, an, in the US, even in community property states Sebastian, they make tehmsleves highly fianncially vulnerable to divorce. Ann Crittenden has a fantasic couple of chapters on this in The Price Of Motherhood — they are chilling. EG even in community property states when a father leaves a mother with the kids, she has no claim to an equal share in his future earnings PLUS the amount needed for the kids. The formula should be that other things being equal each of the separated individuals will enjoy a standard of living equally distantly above the poverty line as each of the others. What happens is that men stay about as far above it, children dip toward it or below it and women, though formally in the same place as the children, de facto are further down than the children (because she divides household resources to their advantage rather than her own). So what I should have said is that although women might well be making a good all-things-considered trade off by forgoing time with their kids we should reorganise things so that it is not such a good trade off.
And yes, being home with a depressed person is not good (I know). But how much people enjoy it depends on lots of things like — how many hours their partner is working; how many other people like them are doing it in the neighbourhood; whether they are exposing themselves to financial vulnerability; whether other people are aorund to help etc. Part of my animus is directed to a pro-work pro-growth culture which makes it harder to achieve the preconditions of rewqarding child-rearing (and enjoyable childhoods and fulfilling lives for that matter).

Andrew, I don’t think it was unfair of me to dismiss expensive childcare as politically irrelevant, but I can see why it looks that I was, and I’ve no idea how to explain why it wasn’t, so I think I have to concede. Thanks for not refraining from writing that last sentence though – it crystallises a bunch of things I know I need to think about.

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