Opinion
Early Childhood Opinion

When it Comes to Child Care Arrangements, Don’t Forget Dad

By Sara Mead — February 07, 2012 2 min read

Dads are playing a more prominent role in caring for their children while moms work, according to recently released Census Bureau data (h/t Eye on Early Education). In families with working moms and preschoolers, one-fifth of children have their father as their primary caregiver while mom works. And across all families of children under 15 with working moms, one-third of dads regularly care for kids while mom is at work--up from just a quarter eight years ago. Experts point towards the current economic climate as one potential cause for the shift. To my mind, it’s positive to see dads playing a more prominent role in caring for their children, but to the extent that this reflects families under economic pressure, that’s troubling.

More broadly, I’m very conflicted about the fact that the Census Bureau considers it a “child care arrangement” when fathers take care of their children while moms are at work. Last I checked, fathers and mothers were both a child’s parents, and when a father takes care of his child, he’s “parenting” not “babysitting.” So it’s annoying that the Census Bureau assumes mom is the default care provider and treats dads like child care options on par with nannies or daycare centers. At the same time, it is the case that we live in a culture where mothers have traditionally been assumed to be children’s primary caregivers, and fathers who played the lead role in child care have been uncommon. As this data indicates, that’s starting to change, but it’s also important from a social science perspective to be able to track how this is changing over time and how those changes impact children, families, and society. For those of us who care about early childhood education, it’s also important to realize that dads are the primary caregivers for a lot of preschool-aged children and to think about how to help support them to promote their children’s healthy development, as well as engage them in preschool, Head Start, and other early ed programs.

Just a reminder to folks, the Census Bureau’s “Who’s Minding the Kids” is a great resource that includes a wealth of information on the child care arrangements of American families--including important realities that often go underrecognized in the popular and policy conversation on these issues (just check out the data on how rare the “nonrelative in child’s home"--ie, nanny arrangement actually is). I also want to flag Eye on Early Education, a great blog that pointed me towards the latest Who’s Minding the Kid’s update. Eye on Early Ed is the blog of the Massachusetts early childhood advocacy group Strategies for Children and is a great source of updates and information on early childhood developments there--and particularly worth following to track Massachusetts’ progress in implementing the recently awarded Early Learning Challenge Grant.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.