Parents of Young Children Yearn to Be Home to Care for Them, Show Wide-Ranging Distrust of Day Care Centers

Eighty percent of mothers 18 to 29 prefer to be home.


New York -- Seventy percent of parents with children five and under say that one parent at home is the best child care arrangement during a child's earliest years, according to a national survey released today by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization. In Necessary Compromises: How Parents, Employers and Children's Advocates View Child Care Today, more than half (56%) of parents strongly agree that no one can do as good a job of raising children as their own parents, with another 23% agreeing somewhat. Forty-seven percent of the parents surveyed report that in their family one parent stays at home to take care of their children in a typical week.

Parents express a strong sense of responsibility for their children, trusting no one as much as themselves to care for them. They are convinced that very young children need the attention of someone who truly cherishes them. And their desire to make sure that their children absorb the values that they believe in is almost tangible, says Deborah Wadsworth, President, Public Agenda.

The polling in Necessary Compromises is distinctive because it includes the perspectives of over 800 parents with kids ages 5 or under, employers, and children's advocates. Funding for this project was provided by The Danforth Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Children Cared for by People Who Love Them

Eighty-one percent of parents think that young children are more likely to get one-on-one affection and attention they need from a stay-at-home parent than from well-trained, caring people in child care. Many parents (44%) also feel children are more likely to learn basic values such as honesty and responsibility from a stay-at-home parent, although 49% say a well-trained child care provider and parents do an equally good job of transmitting values to children, and 5% say a child care provider is more likely than parents to pass on values. In the study, 80% of young mothers ages 18-29-women who grew up when mothers worked outside the home and nonparental child care became more commonplace-say that they themselves would prefer to stay at home to care for their young children rather than work full-time.

Distrust of Day Care

Parents with children five and under show a wide-ranging discomfort with group day care. Six in ten (63%) disagree that a top-notch day care center can provide care as good as what a child would get from a stay-at-home parent. In addition, 63% express great concern that children could suffer physical or sexual abuse in a typical day care center, even though studies say abuse is very unlikely. Acknowledging that it is unlikely a child would face abuse in day care, a New Jersey parent still commented, You don't want . . . your kid to be that one in a million that gets hurt.

Overall, the study suggests that parents are distrustful of relying upon the kindness of strangers for the care of their kids, with 71% agreeing day care should be an option of last resort. Seventy-eight percent believe it is usually best if they rely on a grandparent or other close relative if they need child care.

Parents say that day care can provide good care. They believe we need high quality day care for families who need it. They even say day care has some benefits, such as teaching children how to get along with other kids. But when it comes to handing their own child over to another adult they do not know, they are gripped by anxiety-Will this person really take good care of my child?, says Ms. Wadsworth.

Low-Income Parents Even More Concerned

Notably, low-income parents (those making no more than $25,000 annually) have more pronounced concern about day care centers than high-income parents (those making more than $75,000 annually). Seventy-two percent of low-income parents express great concern about the possibility of neglect or lack of supervision of children, compared with 51% of high-income parents. Seventy-six percent of low-income parents are more fearful that children may suffer physical or sexual abuse in day care, compared with 49% of high-income parents.

Instead of Judgments, Mostly Sympathy for Parents Who Rely on Child Care

Despite their conviction that parental care is best, the parents surveyed express substantial sympathy for working moms, single parents, parents on welfare, and families where both parents work.

Fifty-seven percent of parents believe that the reason both parents work in two-income families is to make ends meet, 68% agree having one parent stay at home is an unrealistic option for most families these days, and 87% agree that mothers who work outside the home are just as loving and committed to their children as stay-at-home moms. Eighty-two percent of parents say that there is a big shortage of affordable day care centers where parents can feel confident their children can get good care. This study indicates that parents believe child care is an important and necessary alternative that should be improved, not abandoned.

Child Care: Commonalities and Differences between Parents, Employers, and Children's Advocates

The study shows many common concerns and views among parents, employers, and children's advocates, but it also reveals some differences. Regarding proposals parents believe would be very helpful as far as improving the care young children get, at the top of the list of parents of children five and under is tax cuts to help families keep one parent at home (64%). Only 27% of children's advocates agree. Children's advocates express a different priority, 86% saying that a very serious problem concerning child care is a lack of affordable, quality day care centers where parents could feel their children would get good care.

The study also suggests that employers nationwide may have serious reservations about taking more responsibility for improving child care. While 73% of employed parents with young kids say they would likely use a high quality on-site child care center provided by their employer, 62% percent of employers strongly agree that few companies have the expertise or resources to run high-quality day care, and 59% strongly agree that the responsibility and liabilities of on-site child care are too much for their own companies to take on. A large majority of employers (79%) believe that their companies have not lost good employees due to a lack of good child care benefits. Also noteworthy:

  • When asked which should be government's highest priority for helping children and families next year, at the top of parents' list is improving public schools (31%), second is providing health insurance to families who lack it (27%), third is making child care more affordable (21%), and last is lowering taxes (19%).
  • However, to help those most in need of day care, 60% of parents say increasing government funding for programs like Head Start would be help improve the quality of day care among low-income families, and 54% believe tightening state regulations and licensing for child care and day care centers would help improve the care young children get.

Methodology: The research base for this poll includes a nationwide random sample telephone survey of 815 parents of children 5 or under, as well as 444 interviews with parents of children 6 to 17 and 214 interviews of adults who do not have children under 18. The margin of error for the 815 parents of children 5 or under is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Mail surveys of 218 employers and 216 children's advocates were also conducted.

Public Agenda's poll also includes interviews with approximately 200 each of parents in California, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and Texas. The parents have children under 18. Seven focus groups with parents and nonparents from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds preceded the national poll and took place in all of these states except Missouri and Texas. Additionally, Public Agenda conducted 13 telephone interviews with experts and practitioners in child care and children's issues.

Public Agenda, located in New York City, is well respected for its influential public opinion polls and its balanced citizen education materials. Founded in 1975 by Cyrus R. Vance, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Daniel Yankelovich, the social scientist and author, its mission is to inform leaders about the public's views and to inform citizens about government policy.

Public Agenda Online ( is a widely acclaimed Web site that contains statistics and results from surveys on child care and 18 other public policy topics. The full-text of Necessary Compromises and a brief video will be available at the site through September 12. Another video on child care is forthcoming from Public Agenda's Public Engagement Division this fall. Media: Charts and photos can be downloaded from the site and videos can be linked to.

Additional media resources:

  • Quotes from focus groups
  • Chart: Child Care Policy Choices (101K JPEG)
  • Chart: Child Care Preferences (108K JPEG)
  • Chart: Concerns About Day Care(100K JPEG)
  • Photo: Deborah Wadsworth
  • Photo: Report Cover

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