Early Formal Care Won’t Damage Your Children
Population Europe (PE): Can research tell us what is more damaging for children’s future: a lack of money or a lack of parents’ time in their early childhood?
Chiara Pronzato (CP):I cannot answer this from my own research, but for sure there is a tendency to overestimate the impact of income in many respects. What can be really problematic is a very low level of income, which prevents families from “spending” on their children. Parental time is very important and it is not necessarily competing with work time. Research with time use data show, for example, that working women spend almost the same amount of time playing and reading with their children as those who do not work. They do this by outsourcing more housework, but also by sacrificing more leisure time.
PE: Concerning non-parental childcare, what is your most important advice for parents with children under 3 years?
CP: Early formal care won’t damage your children. If any, it will help them to socialize earlier and to develop their own skills. Besides, it can also be beneficiary for parents by allowing them to work and giving them opportunities to meet other parents and to talk with teachers. This last point should not be underestimated: First years of life are very important for a child’s cognitive development. Having a constant opportunity to meet parents and teachers who have experience with hundreds of children of the same age can imply a faster identification of problems, for example concerning the ability to speak, and a prompter solution.
PE: What can kindergartens do that grandparents cannot?
CP: I am not aware of any empirical study looking at this, but grandparents for sure provide love and affection. Compared to a teacher, they can dedicate more intensive time to the child. This could explain our findings that children who were looked after by grandparents know more words and are better in naming objects. On the other side, formal care gives the child the possibility to socialize, and to be looked after by a staff who is prepared for this and who has had the opportunity to observe many children in that age range. In a group of children, supervised by a trained teacher, the child can learn basic rules that are essential for feeling secure in any group.
PE: Why are the enrolment rates for formal childcare so different between countries and social groups?
CP: This is something related to culture. Some countries privilege taking care of the children within the family, others are more willing to also support external forms of care. Yet there is a high degree of homogeneity in similar social groups: For example, more educated parents, regardless of the country, are more likely to choose formal childcare. Probably because they are more likely to work and more willing to continue to work, they can afford to pay the fee, and perhaps they also give more credit to the importance of early schooling experience.
PE: Why are lower educated parents more reluctant to use formal childcare?
CP: One reason may be the high price of this kind of service in some countries, which is generally more difficult to afford for people working in poorly paid jobs, as most lower-educated parents do. A second reason lies in the satisfaction with this work: Typically only an interesting and fulfilling job is an incentive for a mother, or a parent in general, to look for external care instead of looking after the child themselves. Especially, if staying home with the child is financially feasible or even more attractive than employment. To start trusting and using external forms of care, lower educated parents might need more information about the benefits for the child, as well as “kindergarten-vouchers” or other policies that make it financially attractive to use external care.
Chiara Pronzato is Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics and Statistics, University of Turin (Italy) and member of the “FamiliesAndSocieties” research project. Her main research interests are in the fields of labour economics, economics of the family, and policy evaluation methods. Recent publications explore the use of non-parental of childcare, with a special focus on the role of grandparents.
Interview: Sigrun Matthiesen for Population Europe