Family Matters

Day Care: Good Care Benefits Kids 30 Years Later — And Moms Too

Moms who choose high-quality child care tend to be more involved in their children's schools. And kids who attend high-quality day cares reap the benefits decades later.

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In the pantheon of parenting decisions — natural childbirth or epidural? Infant carrier or convertible car seat? — deciding on child care holds sway among the biggest stressors. For full-time working parents, day care is where Junior will spend the bulk of his waking hours. It’s not a choice to be made lightly.

Research has shown that high-quality early child care can have a significant impact on children’s well-being, and now a new study in the journal Child Development finds that it’s important for Mom too.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at data from more than 1,300 children whose care settings were evaluated at various intervals from the time they were a month old until they turned 4½. Their mothers were interviewed too. Those moms whose kids were cared for early on in “high-quality nonparental care” settings — either in day care centers or in others’ homes — were more likely than mothers who cared for their kids themselves or sent them to low-quality day care to be involved in their children’s schools starting in kindergarten. Being involved in their kids’ schools didn’t necessarily mean giving up all free time to serve as PTA president; rather, it included being in regular communication with teachers, getting involved with the school community by attending an open house or forging friendships with parents of children’s classmates.

MORE: In Preschool, What Matters More: Education or Play?

Robert Crosnoe, a professor of sociology in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study, notes that “children make a smoother transition to school when families and schools are strongly connected.”

But what does high-quality child care mean anyway? It’s not about preschool children being drilled on their multiplication tables. Instead, it refers to low ratios of students to teachers and developmentally appropriate books and toys, as well as attentive teachers attuned to their students’ developmental needs. In practice, that plays out as teachers trained to not automatically start a curriculum just because the majority of a class is 3 years old. Instead, they individualize activities to children’s specific levels.

A separate study published last month in the journal Developmental Psychology confirms the importance of good child care: people who attended high-quality child care in the 1970s are still reaping the benefits 30 years later.

In this study, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) found that graduates of high-quality child care had more years of education and were four times more likely to have earned college degrees than members of a control group — 23% compared to 6%.

They also were more likely to have held a job and to put off childbearing at least two years beyond the control group, while being less likely to have used public assistance. The outcomes are drawn from the long-running Abecedarian Project, a study of the impact of early childhood education on low-income children at risk of developmental delays or academic failure. The project is led by the FPG Child Development Institute at UNC, which has tracked the same participants from early on.

MORE: What Makes Some Preschools Better Than Others?

What’s interesting about this research is that the teachers were not highly educated themselves; for the most part, they came from the same low-income community as the children. Yet as opposed to most of this country’s child-care workers, they got great training and great benefits, which put the kibosh on quality child care’s biggest obstacle: teacher turnover.

“Caregivers come and go because wages and benefits are so low,” says Elizabeth Pungello, a developmental psychologist at FPG and co-author of the study. “It is a really hard job, and we don’t pay those workers what they are worth. We have to decide it’s a priority.”

It makes economic sense, says Pungello, who points out that when the study participants turned 21, FPG researchers performed a cost-benefit analysis that showed for every $1 spent on quality child care, society saved $2.50. The savings were attributed to fewer delays in school, less need for special education and fewer children having to repeat grades. The most obvious, albeit optimistic, solution? Subsidized child care. Says Pungello: “We’re either going to pay now or later.”