Day Care in America

Who's Minding the Children?
by Margaret Steinfels.
Simon & Schuster. 281 pp. $8.95.

“People seem to feel that because children are little things, they are of little consequence”—so observed Boston's Infant School Society in 1828 in its abortive effort to stir public interest and secure government financing for its enterprise. The lament is a familiar one in the history of American urban education. Today, as in the early 19th century, educators and reformers generally trace family disorganization, poverty, and delinquency to perverse early learning experiences in slums, and inveigh against legislators and bureaucrats who fail to recognize the urgency and potency of their remedial programs. One persistent plea has epitomized reformist thinking right up to the present: “if only we could have intervened in time.” But for better or worse, individual parental prerogatives in this area have remained fairly firm, and Americans have never made a place for the very young child in their millennial vision of public education. This has by and large been true of the latest reform movement in this area as well: day care.

Day care replaced Operation Head Start as the liveliest child-welfare issue of the early 70's. Advocates of the measure mistakenly placed all their eggs in the basket of the Comprehensive Child Development Act and for a while public sponsorship seemed doomed when President Nixon, in a sharp veto of the act, portrayed day care as the opening wedge of an assault on American morals. Additional unanticipated attacks from the Left and a few minority spokesmen—the former on the grounds that day care facilitated “wage slavery,” the latter on the grounds that it represented cultural insensitivity to blacks—also hampered organization and effective lobbying and served further to stifle the initial enthusiasm of many who had naively believed that the “rights of children” somehow transcended politics.

Though scarred by defeat and troubled by criticism, the day-care movement during the past year or so has become increasingly active on both national and local levels. It has found secure niches at several universities, notably Syracuse, North Carolina, and Michigan State. The recent establishment of several semi-scholarly child-care journals, plus a growing stream of books by psychologists, women's liberationists, and journalists should guarantee greater interest and help bring increased pressure on governmental agencies to take action.

“Day care is an idea whose time has come,” writes Margaret Steinfels. “This does not necessarily mean it is a good idea, but simply that it is on the national agenda.” But Steinfels emphatically believes that day care is a good idea, and she offers a variety of thoughtful arguments in its favor. Having seen the movement through its ups and downs, she is wiser and humbler for early frustrations; her book is at once a manifesto and a chronicle of her own blasted dreams.

Drawing upon her travels to day-care centers throughout the country, Steinfels. describes an array of personnel, systems of pedagogy, and physical settings which defy simple generalization. For those unfamiliar with the variety of already existing day-care practices, the information is enlightening. It turns out, for instance, that the most common form of day care is the unlicensed family kind—baby-sitting in neighborhood homes for small groups of youngsters. This represents the antithesis of what Steinfels repeatedly terms, without ever quite defining it, “quality day care”; unable to wait for public initiatives, low-income working mothers leave babies and toddlers with untrained neighbors who charge only minimal fees and provide wholly custodial services.

Steinfels's principal concern, however, is not description but politics, history, and social philosophy. She contends that large-scale public day care is likely to become a reality because three new and powerful interest groups want it. First are the designers of Nixonian welfare policy who hope to use day care to force welfare mothers into the labor market, or at least curtail welfare cheating by the threat to do so. Second are the behavioral scientists whose recent research with pre-school youngsters suggests, first, that frequent mother-child separation does not necessarily cause irreparable emotional damage, and, second, that the quality of early “learning environments” sets severe limitations on cognitive potential. Third are the great mass of American middle-class housewives who, Steinfels contends, have been influenced by the Women's Liberation movement to seek gainful employment. (A fourth, but older and less powerful group are low-income women who have entered the work force in increasing numbers since World War II.) An important if implicit warning runs throughout her political analysis: even after day care comes under public aegis, battles for influence will just have begun, and it is not at all clear yet which group will wield the greatest political clout.

In light of the historical vacuum in which education- and welfare-policy debate so frequently takes place, Steinfels's survey of the origins of day care in America is particularly valuable. Though she exaggerates the extent of popular and Congressional approval for day care during World War II, she deals very intelligently with shifting sources of support and opposition, from the 1890's onward, and appraises the motivations, objectives, and techniques of Progressive social reformers more sympathetically than most recent historians:

The day nursery ladies are easily enough criticized for their noblesse oblige, their condescension, the foisting of their own values upon the poor. . . . It is nonetheless remarkable that, given their limited class interest and narrow experience, these women managed to create the American day nursery. In retrospect their creation seems flexible, practical, and, above all, genuinely responsive to the needs of working mothers.

Steinfels combines her keen political sense with a romantic and nostalgic social philosophy. Her views on the good life derive mainly from a selective portrait of family forms and functions in 17th-century America. She incorporates John Demos's conception of the colonial New England household as “a little commonwealth,” yet neglects what Demos has to say about the extent and bitterness of inter-family rivalries. While she sees no prospect of recreating the “little commonwealth” in metro-America, she appears to believe that through day care we can re-knit at least one stitch of that seamless web of social relationships which sustained colonial households:

A day care system, neighborhood-based, community-oriented, and parent-controlled, could go a long way toward giving families the Family they need to belong to. As an autonomous unit the family cannot long survive the pressures it now experiences; as one of many units in which there is a shared concern for children the family could meet its own need and enlarge our capacities for raising children and making human beings human.

Clearly, then, Steinfels's policy recommendations seek to strengthen, not weaken, the nuclear family. Unlike such radical critics as R. D. Laing and David Cooper, she considers the family an essential and meaningful, if not entirely irreplaceable, source of emotional gratification for both children and adults, and a lonely bulwark against the values of a consumer culture.


Despite its virtues, Who's Minding the Children? deals inadequately with a number of complex issues. For instance, Steinfels minimizes the potential for disagreement among middle- and lower-class parents concerning the question of who should have first access to public day care. Other commentators, however, have noted real and persistent conflicts. Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children's Defense Fund, has reported how fights nearly broke out at a meeting of the National Organization for Women when a middle-class mother asked for equal access to day care so that she could have afternoons free to visit art galleries. Certainly Diane Ravitch's account, in The Great School Wars, of New York's experience in educating the children of ethnically, racially, and socially diverse parents would give little ground for imagining that ingrained prejudices can be overcome simply by invoking the “rights of children.” And the likelihood that the great majority of public day-care centers will be racially segregated should only exacerbate the potential for conflict and create intriguing constitutional issues: does day care fall under the Brown v. Board of Education ruling? Should children under age five or six be bused? Can day-care instructors form separate unions?

Satisfied that the latest evidence from psychologists supports her own preference for expanded day care, Steinfels also never addresses the broader issue of how to integrate behavioral-science knowledge into public policy. At times she seems all too willing to pounce upon the latest laboratory experiments and declare them the new conventional wisdom. Despite her avid endorsement, it seems prudent to wait a little longer before discarding John Bowlby and Anna Freud (not to mention Dr. Spock), or before embracing unequivocally the argument that “maternal deprivation” is largely a myth, or that half of a child's cognitive ability—whatever we mean by that—is fully developed by age five or less. Steinfels's own attempt to resolve some of these perplexities is hardly satisfactory. She asserts that expansion or contraction of day care is basically a political rather than a behavioral-science issue. In fact, however, she has tied her “politics” irrevocably to the fate of newer trends in child psychology by describing the aims of “quality day care” as “developmental” as opposed to custodial. Within the next few years a new generation of avant-garde psychologists may thoroughly undermine the thrust of her book by reinstating psychoanalytic emphases or, more likely, challenging the present-day obsession with cognition.

Finally, Steinfels never convincingly answers the charge that day care is incidental, a poor substitute for more far-reaching social reforms. One need not agree with the ultimate viewpoints of such analysts as Richard Cloward, Christopher Jencks, or Colin Greer to recognize how steadfastly Americans have opposed plans to reduce poverty by increasing income benefits, providing training opportunities to heads of families, or offering direct assistance, advice, and supplies to poor parents seeking to improve their own “learning environments.” Instead, we have consistently by-passed the home and placed all our bets on the public school or other outside agencies such as boys' clubs, social settlements, and day care.

Is it not time perhaps to question this traditional investment, emotional as much as financial, in outside agencies over the home? Is day care really the best option available for strengthening the capacity of lower-class parents to rear their own children? And even if it is, we ought to recall that Progressive social reformers made sure to complement day care with extensive programs for instructing impoverished minority parents in the best “scientific” nurture advice then available. We ought at least to consider the pros and cons of doing the same, before creating a massive new institutional network and turning early child care for the poor over to a new group of “professionals” whose experience and expertise have yet to be adequately tested.

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