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Does Day Care Damage the Learning Curve?

 

Q. I am trying to decide whether to quit my job to stay home with our first child, or keep working and just find the best quality day care I can. But should I? We can probably survive without my full-time income, but it would be very, very hard. What are the most important things to consider?

 

The child development experts caution us to remember that all parents are different, and all children are different, but the bottom line is, Mother (and Father) Know Best. It's best NOT to use day care or what is called "substitute care" from birth to age 3.

 

That puts parents in a horrible situation, sometimes, when a salary is crucial. But you asked. And we all agree that doing what is best for the child's future is what we should do, regardless of our own desires. Working out of your home, or part-time employment for you is the obvious answer, and indeed, mothers who work part-time have been found to be more fulfilled and happy than either mothers who work full-time, or mothers who don't work outside the home. Call it "the best of both worlds."

 

The advice against "substitute care" comes from several sources, including Dr. Burton L. White, who says he is "disturbed" by the trend of infants and toddlers spending most of their waking hours in the care of someone other than a member of their immediate family. His concern is not only because of the problem of contagious diseases, but also because of the serious, long-term emotional and psychological debilitation of having a child perceive that there is not one consistent, primary caregiver who loves him or her very much and is thrilled with each and every discovery, but is NOT going to "go away."

 

A child's educational progress depends on four factors, according to Dr. White: language development, curiosity, intelligence, social development. The last one may surprise you, since we're focusing on what a young child needs in early childhood to be a good learner later on. But it's easier to promote a child's intelligence and language skills than to make him or her socially effective and a pleasure to be with. And to maximize your child's development in all four areas, you really need to be your child's first teacher, not day care.

 

The key to a young child's confidence and, later on, motivation to learn, comes from what Dr. White calls "effective responsiveness." That means that the caregiver teaches the child to use another person as a resource in situations he or she can't handle himself, while also teaching the child that sometimes, you have to wait a little bit for what you want. The superior language modeling of an adult, vs. four or five other young children in group care, is obvious. All of these are as important as food, water, clothing and shelter, to a young child, especially with regard to future educational success.

 

He wrote, "I firmly believe that most children get a better start in life when, during the majority of their waking hours of their first three years, they are cared for by their parents or other nuclear family members, rather than by a substitute caregiver."

 

There are exceptions, of course, mostly "basket case" situations, in which one or both parents simply are not competent. In those situations, if a "nanny" can't come to the home, or if a grandma can't take care of the baby, Dr. White recommends a small day-care home with no more than five children total.

 

But overall, Dr. White believes that parents and grandparents are much more likely to meet a young child's developmental needs than anyone who is being paid to do that and, no matter how caring a person, still far more disinterested in the child than his own parents and grandparents. Things you do for love rather than pay are what are important: putting in the time it takes to encourage those first steps, for example, or encouraging and satisfying a baby's curiosity by being "engaged" with the child, down on the floor, getting new objects for him or her to manipulate, and talking, talking, talking, to build language skills and intelligence.

 

Even so, he recommends that the primary caregiver, most likely the mother, should have a few hours away from the baby every day for mental-health purposes, especially from 15 months to 24 months, when babies tend to be the most challenging. At that point, he recommends finding a caregiver to come in to your home, rather than a group day-care setting, even if it is in someone else's home. It's best to have that person's hours overlap with the baby's nap time, to minimize your child's exposure to a "stranger" while still keeping the baby safe while you leave the house for some R&R or to work. He also recommends nannies in their 20s, because experience has shown frequent conflicts with older part-time, in-home caregivers.

 

Homework: Get Dr. Burton L. White's classic parenting guide, which has been updated, The New First Three Years of Life.

 

By Susan Darst Williams www.ShowandTellforParents.com Controversies 01 2008

 

 

 

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