What Children Need

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 5, 2009

I was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison this week, and was very lucky that Jane Waldfogel was giving “the A. Kahn Memorial lecture”:http://www.irp.wisc.edu/newsevents/seminars/series/2009/KahnLect2009.htm on Thursday. She gave a fascinating talk on developments in comparative social policy studies, and also discussed her forthcoming book on Britain’s war on child poverty. I’m sure that when that book is out, somewhere in April 2010, someone more knowledgeable on the UK and the lessons that can be drawn for the US will post a piece here.

I don’t think we’ve discussed her work here on CT before, which is a shame, really, since her book What Children Need is an excellent book on the topic of its title. The book focuses especially on the question what children from working parents need. How can we make sure that the care that children get when their parents have to work is good enough?
It is quite difficult to find a balanced overview of discussions related to these issues, since many people have strong opinions. What I liked so much about Waldfogel’s book, is that she doesn’t try to come up with a one-sentence simplistic view, such as “children are better off in parental care until they are three” or “children under one should never be in daycare, since this will harm them.” Instead, she points out the different aspects at work – for example, that extending parental leave has beneficial effects on children up to one year, but that extending it for longer has not shown to have any effects, and has harmful effects for women as workers; that the problem with non-parental child care under the age of one are related to it being full-time and the care being of low quality, which in combination with insensitive parental care may lead to bad health and behavioural outcomes for children; but that the higher income of working mothers may offset some of these effects. What I found especially enlightening in her chapter on infants, is the importance of the quality of parental care for the effects of nonparental care; if parents are sensitive caregivers, then the children do much better in nonparental care. Also interesting, but not surprising, was her conclusion that we don’t know anything about the effects of working fathers on infants, since this has not been studied.

Waldfogel also discusses what older children need, like after school programmes which will keep them off the street in case there is no-one to care for them after school. She argues, convincingly in my view, that if we want the needs of children to be adequately met, that we need the following policies (I copy them from the book): allowing parents more flexibility to take off time for family responsibilities; break the link between the employment and essential family benefits, such as health insurance; give mothers and fathers the opportunity to spend more time at home in a child’s first year of life; improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers; improve the quality of care and education for preschool-aged children; increase access to high-quality out-of-school programs for school-aged children and teenagers; and increase the role of the schools by extending the school day and year.

I think all of this make eminently sense and looking at European states shows us that this is not financially impossible, as long as the political community is willing to invest money in children and their future. And that is probably where, for the US at least, the problem lies, since the government is too often not perceived as enabling opportunities and supporting vulnerable people (such as children) but rather as getting into the way of families.

My only quibble with the book is that it separates the agenda of what we need for children and families, from the agenda how to create a more gender just world. I can see that for political-strategic reasons it may be wise to separate the two; but if the children’s agenda is implemented without thinking about how this will work out for the gender constellation, it may have unintended negative effects on that front.

In any case, highly recommended for anyone interested in thinking about policy making for children and the family.



Witt 12.06.09 at 2:35 am

improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers

I’m struck by the major stumbling block: Money. Government officials and nonprofit advocates in my state have made this issue a huge priority, such that there is now intense emphasis on the Child Development Associate credential, as well as associate’s degrees in early childhood education. There is a state certification program for daycare providers, with incentives to encourage small home- and community-based daycare to participate in training programs to become more professional. There are statewide events and local professional development workshops and there is lots of outreach to hard-to-reach informal care providers.

And yet even with all of these new credential and training requirements, many (most?) daycare workers are being paid minimum wage, $7.15 an hour, generally with no health benefits. This summer, during our state budget crisis, many daycares went months without receiving the income they anticipated from public subsidies for daycare for poor children. It was quite simply a catastrophe, with some closing their doors entirely, others turning away their subsidized children in favor of private-pay participants, and still others taking extreme measures such as asking staff to work without pay or spending personal savings to continue serving their clients.

Improving the quality of care costs money. Using government to obtain and distribute that money solves one set of problems and creates another.

increase access to high-quality out-of-school programs for school-aged children and teenagers

An astute observer once remarked that out-of-school-time programs for middle-class kids are aspirational/enrichment-oriented, while those for poor and working class kids are focused on avoiding risks. In my experience that remains true, such that the definition of “high quality” is contextual. I can’t remember if it was someone at Bitch Ph.D. or Lawyers Guns and Money that posted about the quality of education provided in special programs for teen mothers. If you think a teenager has already “failed” by taking the “risk” of becoming a young parent, how hard are you likely to work to ensure that the educational programs provided to her are aspirational or enrichment-oriented?

we don’t know anything about the effects of working fathers on infants, since this has not been studied.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I am. Wow.


John Quiggin 12.06.09 at 3:58 am

Some random observations from Australia

The Australian norm/aspiration for families with young children is 1.5 jobs + childcare. That is, one parent (usually the father) works full-time, and the other part-time, with the kids in childcare when both are working. There’s a lot of informal arrangements, but the norm/aspiration is centre-based care.

There are obviously some big gender issues here, reflected in a long-standing and partially successful push for core workforce (permanent employment, career prospects) jobs to be available on a part-time basis.

Childcare workers aren’t well paid but better than the US (this story reporting that some wages have been cut as the result of a move to a uniform national pay scale gives a wage of $580 per week or abt $15/hr, exchange rate 0.90, PPP abt 0.75)

We are about to finally get a paid parental leave scheme to start in 2011 – government-financed, 18 weeks at minimum wage, offset by the loss of some other benefits. Public sector employers and a few others offer better deals.


JoB 12.06.09 at 10:42 am

Ingrid, I would second your quibble since if the typical home situation is more unequal one could expect a lower quality parental care (but has this been studied?) and so back to what she did study. No?


Mother of 3 12.06.09 at 11:00 am

It’s complicated….

Having to juggle the needs of children, families, employers….

It’s a question of priorities – but where to draw the lines…

And as Witt said, the money problem…

At the end of the day, however, the quality of the future depends on the sacrifices we make today. Not that many politicians plan beyond their next election…

And when it comes to sacrificing money….

It becomes complicated. Period.

Just my personal opinion.


Matt 12.06.09 at 5:21 pm

I always have mixed feelings about “after school programs to keep kids off the streets”, not only for the reasons mentioned by Witt, but also because, after a certain point, I hated such things. I played a fair number of sports, some school sponsored and some not, so I suppose some of those qualified as “after school programs”, but after a certain point what I wanted to do was things like go skate boarding or snow boarding with my friends, the sort of thing that doesn’t fit well into a “program”. And even when I was young, lots of my time after-school was spent riding bikes or playing or exploring with friends in relatively unstructured ways. I generally liked this more to more structured activities. Now, I grew up in a place where it was perhaps harder to get in trouble than some others, but still, I find the trend to want to structure more and more of kids’ time a disturbing one. I’m not at all convinced that it leads to the sort of people we really want. (There’s some good stuff on this sort of split in Annette Lareau’s work, of course, though I don’t think I’d draw the morals from it that some people do [not her, importantly].)


harry b 12.06.09 at 6:51 pm

I agree fully about overstructuring children’s time. But if you look at the time of many lower-income children it is overly unstructured by adults (in the US they spend considerably less of their time in school than in other OECD countries, for example). The push for extended school day and extended school year could be seen as a push to put them in roughly the same situation ther foreign peers are in.

Contrary to witt and matt (both of whom I would have agreed with till recently), now I have a teenager, I am starting to hear just how worried many (upper middle class aspirational parents, esp of girls) are about the risks their children might undertake in unstructured time, and it now seems to me that the motives are at least as much about risk-avoidance as about aspiration (insofar as those are separate).

I got hold of and devoured Waldfogel’s book soon after it was published, and Ingrid has made me feel guilty for not recommending it to CT readers. It really is excellent, and all the philosophers working on children and the family, even outside the US, need to read it (and everyone else should, too).


Matt 12.06.09 at 7:20 pm

Harry- I find it plausible that many kids have less structured time than is desirable, too. Certainly having access to more structured time for those who want or need it is good. And I don’t doubt that many parents want more structured time because of fear of risk, but I’m skeptical about how much of this fear is rational. Isn’t much of it a sort of over-blown fear of very unlikely events, like a stranger kidnapping? Talking with my siblings, all of whom have kids now, you’d think that kidnappings by strangers were very common and a major concern we need to devote resources to rather than a very rare event, one that devoting resources to (such as having everyone drive to school) almost certainly not only wastes resources but might well make kids less safe. If the fears are largely irrational (I’d place fears about kids experimenting sexually there, though others might not) do we really want to build policy around them? Maybe you think they are not as irrational as I suspect they are, though. I’m open to being convinced I’m wrong on the level of danger, at least on some aspects.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.06.09 at 7:27 pm

The Money Question surely is a hard one, but the US is one of the richest countries in the world – much richer in any case than many countries that are caring better for children’s needs. So I believe that it is a question of prioritizing, and that advocates should not so much focus on how much these measures will cost and argue that this is a worthwhile social/human investment, but rather argue by comparing with other governmental expenditures, or foregone governmental revenues because certain groups pay less taxes than they should due to loopholes in the fiscal rules.

JoB, I’ve asked several sociologist/social work scholars whether they know of any studies which have analysed whether all other things equal children in egalitarian families (i.e. where if there are two parents, both hold roughly equal sized jobs) are better off or worse off than in parents with an unequal gender division of labour. They only replies I got was (a) that they didn’t know of any such studies, and (b) that it is a good question (which is reassuring to hear but doesn’t provide an answer). Perhaps someone here knows?


Philip 12.06.09 at 8:27 pm

When I did my MA in Applied Policy Research a couple of years ago, in the UK, I know a couple of professors had been knocked back for funding into research into egalitarian households and how they managed to be successful. I don’t know how much they would have focused on the effects on children, but research in that area didn’t seem to be favoured by funding agencies.


harry b 12.06.09 at 8:40 pm

Matt– no the fear is of sex alcohol and drugs (for preteens and teens). I don’t know how rational it is, and don’t share it at all (that is, I think these are things well worth avoiding, I’m just not worried about my kid, indeed, if anything I’m worried that, like me, she might be too far the other way). I have no reason to believe that actually doing all this organised stuff immunises the kids from such things.


harry b 12.06.09 at 10:40 pm

Ingrid: is that the right specification (roughly equal sized jobs?). Why is that relevant? Shouldn’t it just be “spend roughly equal amounts of time on childrearing activities”? Even that needs refinement — “over the course of the child’s childhood”? or “within each year or so of a child’s childhood”? One thing we haven’t really settled in any precise way (probably because it isn’t especially important for policy purposes right now) is what counts as egalitarian.


Witt 12.07.09 at 1:23 am

Harry, to clarify, I was talking about the way programs are pitched in advertisements, and the way they arepositioned by the businesses that run them, and the educational funders/private foundations that occasionally support them. E.g., these summer camps are emphatically aspirational and enrichment-oriented (tennis, golf, pre-college at an Ivy League University, pre-nursing program).

I’m sure that individual parents are indeed worried about their upper-middle-class kids getting involved with sexual activity and drug use, but that’s not the way society in general (in my experience) is viewing/talking about these programs.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.07.09 at 1:24 am

Harry: yes, you are right. And it would be great if scholars who do empirical research could tell us whether it makes a difference whether it is within each year (and if so, which year of a child’s life), or rather over the course of a lifetime.


Witt 12.07.09 at 1:24 am

And I agree that in general that young people in our society (of whatever class) have too little rather than too much unstructured time.


leederick 12.07.09 at 10:19 am

“So I believe that it is a question of prioritizing, and that advocates should … argue by comparing with other governmental expenditures, or foregone governmental revenues because certain groups pay less taxes than they should due to loopholes in the fiscal rules.”

This why I don’t agree with the push for state sponsored childcare. The people we’ll be subsidising will be middle-aged, dual income couples – one of the most fortunate groups in society. It’s a distraction from assisting the groups which need state support: the young, the old, unemployed, the single.

Arguing by comparing with other expenditures isn’t going to do very well because there are much more worthy causes. Arguing that we waste money on other things so shouldn’t have a problem wasting money on this doesn’t seem to work either. I can’t see a good reason for supporting these programs there seem to be large costs and only marginal benefits which will tend to go to the rich.


laura 12.07.09 at 1:25 pm

I’ve been thinking about this post all weekend. I really have to get my hands on that book, Ingrid. Thanks for blogging about it. I can’t quite figure out how one could construct a proper of study of the impact of working parents on children, because there are so many variables to consider. I’ll have to check out the book to see how she does it. I’ll write a blog post this morning riffing off your post, Ingrid.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.07.09 at 7:36 pm

Laura, in this book Waldfogel gives a synthesis of original research articles, some of which she did (often in collaboration with others) but also research done by others. Most of this research is done in a quantitative fashion based on data that were specifically collected to do research on the effect of different types of work and of policy arrangements (like parental leave) on ‘child outcomes’ (health, behaviour outcomes, test scores a few years later etc). These studies are limited just in the same way as all other quantitative research is limited, namely, as you are indeed suggesting, I think, that some variables may not be included and hence we don’t know their effect. I think to get a real grip on the results, one would need to trace back the original research articles, and be sufficiently trained to judge their quality.
I haven’t done that, but have in the past read similar articles, so have a sense of how this works; however, I am unsure how the ‘sensitive’ parenting would be measured. Given how important this seems to be for children’s well-being, I found it a pity that the book did not contain any more detailed information on what that precisely means (it is only explained by means of examples), and how it is/can be measured. So perhaps I will need to create the time to go and read the original articles after all….


Helen 12.08.09 at 2:38 am

So Leederick, working class and disadvantaged mothers shouldn’t have access to the very thing that allows them to climb out of their disadvantage, by working? How does that work again?

Oh, and the popular refrain these days to oppose any reform that would improve things for working women (or couples, or single Dads) is to invoke the “Middle Class” bogey. Never mind the fact that most of us who consider ourselves “middle class” are a paycheque or a major illness away from financial ruin. It’s funny how the most conservative or right wing commentator becomes an avid socialist when it comes to throwing the hateful bourgeoisie under the bus.


Helen 12.08.09 at 2:40 am

Oops, reading too fast – Leederick said Middle Aged, not Middle class. But the “dual income” implies it.
And Middle Aged… Wha…? Why should ones’ age at parturition disqualify one from childcare?


JoB 12.08.09 at 8:28 am

8-11-13, Ingrid/Harry – I guess there is good reason to open a website with subjects for study (but maybe that exists). I would think the definition of equality at home isn’t the first priority though. Presumably Waldfogel has some measure for the quality parental care she differentiates over. In a first instance one could study the variations of it, and range over various possible differentiators on the home side. That said – I’d agree with what I understood Harry as saying, intuitively we’re looking for a correlation between the independence of the two parents and the quality of parental care; both working is a standard case but non-essential (if the mother is an unpaid artist and the father is home working that would, for me, qualify as part of the hypothesized cases correlated with a higher parental care quality – but the problem will be to control for just correlating on income levels, ah, I’m sooooo lucky I’m not a social scientist).

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