The Day Care Debate

When I was a youngster, I was the only kid I knew who had two parents who worked. It was the 50s, when the mode was for dads to work and moms to stay home. These days it’s hard to find families where both parents do not need to hold jobs.

As a result, couples with infants and toddlers face the tough task of finding quality day care. Some studies have shown that two ingredients of better day care are having workers who are well-trained, and a lower ratio of children to workers.

Now Sir Richard Bowlby, the son of the famous British child development theorist John Bowlby, adds a third ingredient: having someone at day care with whom your child can form a nurturing emotional bond.

Sir Richard emailed me after reading Social Intelligence to say, “Babies and toddlers in daycare avoid chronic separation anxiety if they can develop an emotional bond with one carer.”

Here he follows up on the work of his father which shows that especially during the first two-and-a-half years of life an empathic, responsive caretaker helps a child develop a basic sense of security in the world, one that becomes a basis of healthy relationships lifelong. I explored this idea – and updated it in terms of new neuroscience evidence – in Chapter Eleven of Social Intelligence.

Sir Richard, president of the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, advocates a program called “Sure Start,” which seeks to find ways that babies and toddlers can form an emotional bond to their caretakers. One, “childminder,” is a small day care setting in which a nurturing worker takes care of three children, including no more than one baby under one year – thus enabling all the kids to have a familylike bond. The other, a day nursery, puts kids in groups of similar ages, with up to three babies or toddlers under two per carer. The idea is to have a consistent relationship with the caretaker, the same “key-person” with whom children can form a stable attachment during the part of the day they are away from their parents.

To be sure, all too many working parents do not have the luxury of shopping around to find the “just perfect” day care for their kids. But for those with choices, these are good guidelines to keep in mind. And for the rest, we should be subsidizing day care so that every child can have the best arrangements, for their own well-being and for the good of society as a whole.

Sir Richard is at Richard.bowlby@freeuk.com; his paper is available here.

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