Book Review: 'Child Care Today' by Penelope Leach

Review By Sara Sklaroff
Sunday, February 22, 2009


Getting It Right for Everyone

By Penelope Leach

Alfred A. Knopf. 350 pp. $25.95

There comes a time in the life of every new parent when the realization hits: This kid isn't gonna take care of itself.

Do the math. Until the age of 10 or so, children need to be looked after every moment of every day. And yet many parents work full-time jobs. So what happens during those 40 (or 50 or 60 or more) hours a week? If you're the mom or dad of a young child, this nasty bit of calculus quickly becomes the organizing principle of your life. Even if you're lucky enough to find a child-care solution you like, there are still the sick days, business trips, snow days, vacations, holidays, late nights at the office and other emergencies and surprises that continually threaten to bring the whole thing crashing down.

Penelope Leach, the British psychologist and author of "Your Baby and Child," the one book that's always on my bedside table, has published an exhaustive new study on the best way to take care of kids and how parents in Western nations are currently doing it. "Child Care Today: Getting it Right for Everyone" is as ambitious as its subtitle suggests. It also comes at a moment when the country seems more worried about the fate of the "octomom" and her 14 children than about how the rest of the nation's parents are able to manage their one or two or three. That's a shame, because what's clear from Leach's book is that the United States could be doing a lot better.

The debate that hangs like a quickly ripening diaper in the background of any discussion of child care is about whether it's best for mothers to stay at home with infants and young children. A lot of what's written about childrearing assumes that a 24-7 at-home mom is the gold standard. But Leach points out that the mother-only care model is the artifact of a very brief period (the 1950s) and was so untenable that it quickly brought on a social revolution. Humans weren't meant to raise their young in isolation.

She gives us a better way to think about the decision, and for the stressed-out new parent too tired to read more than a few paragraphs at one sitting, here's the bottom line: If you think you'll do a good job as a stay-at-home parent, and you really want to do it, you should be a stay-at-home parent. But if not, don't do it! You'll serve your child better by finding the best alternative you can.

Easier said than done? You bet. With no experience at all, you are asked to assess the relative merits of day-care centers you visit for a couple of hours or evaluate a babysitter who is a complete stranger. How do you entrust your precious baby or toddler to anyone? For that matter, how do you even know whether you yourself would be good at childrearing if you've never done it before?

Answer these questions, and you quickly reach the second hurdle: The best day-care centers are booked years in advance, with long waiting lists; good family-care settings and nannies can be hard to find; and staying at home yourself brings its own difficulties. Even if you've decided on day care, this country generally doesn't do a very good job of it, Leach writes. Parents too often face a choice between inadequate care outside the home and inadequate income within it.

Although it's true that the United States is almost alone among developed nations in not mandating any paid maternity leave (or paternity leave), Leach's book describes a system that's broken logistically as much as financially. For single mothers trying to escape the poverty trap, the lack of good, affordable, flexible child care makes taking a job a losing proposition. For career women attempting to break glass ceilings or just stay competitive with male peers, the system is hostile both to a family's day-to-day needs and to the very idea of leave. Thinking about taking a year or more off to experience in depth the extraordinary development of a tiny human being? You're almost certain to face a backslide in salary when you return to work, and maybe an unsought career change. The dreaded mommy track is alive and well.

Most of the moms I know are frustrated. The ones who quickly went back to work wish that they could have stayed home longer; the ones who are at home indefinitely despair of their social status and future job prospects. One friend confides that she would like to work part-time instead of full-time, but realizes that no one would take her seriously at the office. Another, raised to believe that a woman should stay home and care for her kids, is ashamed to tell her own mother that she has hired her sitter for the extra hours she needs.

Leach offers counsel for all of us, with the caveat that while good research can offer insights for national policy, it can't help you answer a question like "Which day care should I pay to look after my child starting next week?" But some day care trends are clear: For the youngest children, high adult-child ratios and low turnover are key, so that the baby will be cared for consistently by the same person each day; for older children, the quality of the interactions between adults and children becomes more important. (Note to that exhausted new parent, if you haven't yet fallen asleep over a hamper full of onesies: Chapter 16 will tell you most of what you need to know.) Above all, we do best by our children when we think deeply about our choices from their point of view. It's easy to get caught up in the ways a particular care service can help us as parents, with generous late-pickup policies, or sick-day care. But "choosing childcare," Leach writes, "is not like choosing a refrigerator." If we're going to put our children in the care of others, it's vital to find caregivers who will respond to their needs and respect their individuality.

I've stuck with Leach's earlier book through my first 3 1/2 years as a mother because it's both child-centric and sensible. "Child Care Today," while somewhat drier in style, has the same combination of kindness and rigor. Leach understands that all families are different. At the same time, she's firm about certain things, such as the importance of regular family time, especially dinners. "Having your three-year-old eat supper at child care or with the nanny or babysitter may save you time at too high a cost," she writes. And she urges parents to make sure to attend their kids' special occasions at school or elsewhere. On the fence about whether to skip out on work for it? "Ask yourself if other parents will be there. If the answer's yes, your answer is yes."

In the meantime, how do most of us get by? By using our instincts as parents, and with quite a bit of luck. I'm fortunate to have a husband who does at least half, if not more, of the childrearing -- and a boss and colleagues who are openhearted about the times when I have to rush off for an unexpected pickup or get grounded by yet another bug incubated in the preschool petri dish.

And yet there are more days than I can count when I linger in my daughter's classroom at dropoff, wishing I could stay for hours, or find myself sitting at my computer giggling to myself about her latest malapropism. (She thought dinosaurs smelled bad, because they are extinct: egg-stinked!). I spent the first two years of her life at home with her, and I still can't get enough.

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