Essay: Developing in a Family

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Family Development

Child care advice for parents

Child care and day care institutions are very much part of family life in contemporary Western societies. Our new generation of parents, especially mothers, have been psyched to believe that starting a family is no longer an impediment to having an enduring career that is both personally and financially rewarding. It can be an elusive goal, but work-family balance is increasingly becoming feasible, thanks to modern technology, flexible working conditions, and of course, the availability of child care.

Recent statistics show that up to 78% of previously working first-time mothers in the United States return to their jobs by the time their babies turn 12 months old, and that majority of them use child care and family day care centers (Hann et al., 2001 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). "Child care" has a broad definition and is not limited to organized, center-based institutions. In fact, it includes any regular non-maternal care of ten hours or more including care by fathers, grandparents, and other relatives whether in home or out of home (Belsky et al., 2007). It also includes the use of nannies and family day care, wherein a mother cares for her own children and a couple others' in a home setting.

This paper attempts to address the important factors affecting child care use and its implications on the child's cognitive and social outcomes. Any concerned parent might find useful the theories and research data presented here in terms of knowing how to make child care work for them.

The decision on whether to use child care or not ultimately depends on the parents' needs and circumstances. Some parents do it for financial reasons such as mortgage responsibilities and lifestyle choices. However, as mentioned earlier, the most common reason for using child care is the mother wanting to return to work. Studies show that women who are first-time mothers, highly educated, and have higher socio-economic status are more likely to return to work earlier than others (Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). Although society in general still believes in the traditional view that mothers are the best to take care of their babies and must therefore sacrifice career for family, there is strong ongoing evidence that mothers take care of their children better if they feel secure in whatever role they fulfill, whether as a paid employee or a homemaker. In other words, it is not working or staying at home full-time per se that matters but the mother's attitude and feelings towards her role.

Studies show that role satisfaction either as a paid worker or homemaker is associated with more effective child-rearing experiences (Bronfenbrenner and Crouter, 1991 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002) whereas role conflict is linked with stress, depression, and less positive mothering experiences (Hock and deMeis, 1990; Pistrang, 1984, in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). Maternal behavior is very important since it ultimately affects the attachment behavior of her baby. In the now classic study of infant-mother attachment using the strange situation methodology, it was shown that infants with secure and responsive moms tend to be securely attached, with less tendency to be distressed and are able to explore more freely in strange situations (Ainsworth, 2001). Conversely, babies who have rejecting, angry, and restrictive moms tend to be insecure and ambivalent or insecure and avoidant.

A recent Australian study on the effect of maternal employment on infant-mother attachment security showed that mothers who are more committed to work and more comfortable about using day care tend to have babies who are also more secure and display less separation anxiety than those who are not (Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). In the same study, more than one half of babies with stay-at-home moms were observed to be insecure-ambivalent, which is puzzling and surprising especially since the popular notion is that babies with full-time moms are happier and more secure. The researchers explained that maternal behavior and well being, such as immature coping styles, excessive infant protection, and feelings of isolation and resentment, might have contributed to such behavior among infants. These findings support Ainsworth's theory and emphasize the importance of a mother's preparedness and clear expectations when deciding to go back to work and use child care or stay at home full time.

Should parents choose to put their baby in child care, the factors to consider next are the type and quality of child care to use. The types of child care were discussed earlier and while care by relatives, if available, would be picked first hands down by many parents, center-based care has some advantages over the others as will be discussed later. In the meantime, it's reasonable to assume from empirical evidence that the quality of child care has more important and far-reaching implications than the type per se of child care used. A landmark study by the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) shows that experience in high quality child care of any kind is correlated to pre-academic skills or language functioning (Belsky et al., 2007). Specifically, high quality, center-type care predict better language and memory skills in children when they are just about to enter school (4 1/2 years). Further, the advantages of high quality care to both mother and infant are seen over and above factors like the mother's sensitivity, level of education, and moral support received (NICHD 1997a/1999 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). Hence, experience in good quality child care can possibly moderate the effects of maternal risk factors like depression, single parenthood, and low socio-economic status.

Once the type and quality of child care are decided upon, the question that comes next is: When is the right time to put my baby in child care and, for how long? There is no general consensus among experts on these. Some say starting early (less than 5 months old) is better because younger infants are non-discriminating in their social responsiveness compared to older babies (Bowlby's Theory of Attachment; Bowlby, 1969 in Lamb et al., 1999). Hence returning to work later when infant-mother attachment has been more established results in more anxiety for the infant (Bowlby, 1969/1978 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). This is supported by study reports wherein attachment security among babies in the early return groups (before 6 months of age) rates higher than babies in the late return groups (Harrison and Ungerer, 2002; Benn, 1986, in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002).

An alternative argument is that the first four months post-partum is a critical stage wherein reciprocal understanding between mother and child is being established. Hence, returning to work within this period affects the mothers parenting confidence and ability to attune to her baby (Brazelton, 1986 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). This view is supported by research evidence showing that insecure-avoidant babies were more frequent when the mothers returned to work before 8 months of age (Barglow et al., 1987; Winraub and Jaeger, 1991 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002).

As with type-quality comparisons, the time spent in child care appears to be a more contributory factor to infant-mother attachment than the actual start of child care use. There have been reports on the increased frequency of insecure-ambivalent infants when their mothers work 30 hrs or more compared to mothers who work less or stay at home (Scher and Mayseless, 2000, in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). In the NICHD study, babies whose mothers had low levels of sensitivity and spent more than 10 hrs a week in child care were likely to acquire the insecure attachment pattern (NICHRD ECCRN, 2006). This suggests that part-time employment for mothers is a good compromise since it allows them to enjoy the benefits of working while at the same time gain more opportunities for enhancing infant-maternal attachment. There is no general agreement yet on part-time work-infant attachment correlation, but it has been hypothesized that more positive outcomes are achieved for children if their mothers work part-time rather than full-time (Zaslow et al., 1991 in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). Further, part-time working moms have a higher sense of self-esteem, more satisfaction, and less stress than those working full time (Owen and Cox, 1988; Wolcott and Glezer, 1995, in Harrison and Ungerer, 2002). When mothers are able to maintain a positive outlook like this, it suggests possible quality time and enhanced interaction with their babies.

For most families who opt to use it, child care is a long-term commitment that can stretch for up to four years if the child starts early. Even if she attends only 20 hrs a week, multiply that by 200 weeks and the cumulative time effect can be staggering. Consider the following report from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (Belsky et al., 2007): Children who were in child care longer tend to have higher levels of teacher-reported behavioural problems (but not academic or language skills) through 6th grade. This effect is more evident if the care is given by non-family members such as in day care settings (van IJzendoorn et al., 2004… [END OF PREVIEW]

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