Wednesday, July 08, 2009

This Should Make You Feel Better about Day Care

Last week's Science had two book reviews about parenting in it. Both were interesting. One was a review of a sociology book called Longing and Belonging, by Allison Pugh, about the use of consumer goods to help children fit in. The other was a review of a human evolution book called Mothers and Others, by Sara Hrdy. I've linked to the summaries rather than the full text because you'll need a subscription to read the full text.

The premise of Mothers and Others (at least according to the review- I haven't read the book yet) is that humans are actually a "cooperatively breeding species", meaning that "individuals other than the mother assist in the care and provisioning of young". This is supported by the shorter birth interval of human hunter-gatherer populations (3-4 years) as compared to great apes (6-7 years) and by the tolerance human mothers show to having other individuals hold and care for our young (apparently, this is a big no-no in great ape society). Fathers, by the way, don't count- mothers couldn't count on them sticking around. They do in some hunter-gatherer societies, but not in others. Flexible child care arrangements utilizing the larger societal group are more consistent.

Furthermore, Hrdy argues that this cooperative breeding status might explain the origin of some human interaction behaviors (such as our ability to theorize about the intentions of others) that had previously been explained primarily by the existence of warfare. The reviewer, Gillian Brown, points out that other researchers have begun to theorize that cooperative breeding might even explain the selection of some quintessentially human behaviors, such as "social learning, teaching, and language."

So, the modern trend of flexible child care arrangements that often involve members of our larger societal group isn't so new afterall. I wonder what the traditionalists who argue that the nuclear family is the only way in which humans should raise children would say to that? (No cheap shots about them not believing in evolution- not all of the traditionalists are fundamentalist Christians.)

This theory of human cooperative breeding would argue that societies that provide better "extended group" support to mothers are more inline with our evolutionary biology, and perhaps even more likely to succeed. Current demographic data certainly supports the idea that greater societal support to families leads to more successful societies, at least if we define a successful society as one that is not shrinking. Many Western countries are seeing declines in birth rates to levels below replacement. It is common to "blame" this on working women. However, as a recent article in the Economist points out, the trend of lower birth rates in countries in which many women work outside the home has been reversed, and there is now a positive correlation between birth rates and female employment rates. The article theorizes that this is due to the fact that children are no longer an economic help (in that they could work on the farm) but an economic drain (in that we need to buy them lots of things), and so many families need two incomes to support multiple children.

The article goes on to explain that countries with high female employment rates tend to have "large government cash transfers to families, generous replacement pay during parental leave, the availability of plenty of part-time work and lots of formal child care." Most mothers reading this post probably could have told the researchers this, but it is actually based on comparative data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. France and the Scandinavian countries are the examples of this sort of society.

The obvious exceptions are America and Britain, neither of which provide large cash payments to families or state-provided child care. The article posits that our birth rates are still high because of a flexible labor market that allows women to drop out and then back in and because public opinion "approves of working mothers". I'd also add that, at least in the US, quality child care is available, even if it is not state sponsored and is rather expensive. I remember a thread on going back to work at Ask Moxie in which a woman from Austria commented that it was almost impossible to find child care for a child under the age of three. Long maternity leaves are the norm, there. I can only speak for myself, but I think that if I lived in a country like that, I would not be having a second child. I don't want to spend that much time out of the workforce, not because I'd worry about my ability to get back in, but because I'd miss the work. Not all women are cut out to be stay at home mothers. Perhaps the key to our relatively high birth rate is that, despite our occasional squabbles about what type of mother is "best", we do actually allow each woman (whose family has sufficient means....) to find her own way.

Now, if we could just learn a little bit more from our evolutionary past, and actually provide societal support to ALL mothers, not just those with the means to purchase it. I think that would make us an even more successful society.


  1. Fascinating. Thanks for writing up what the articles (and books) were about. I can see the US and Britain could get around the government support due to the societal approval of working women, the trend to equal partners and work places being more and more flexible about the needs of working mothers and fathers (including flexible schedules, part time work, working from home, extended maternity leave, paternity leave, time and places to pump, etc.).

    I've often said that if it takes a village to raise children, then why can't daycare providers and nannies be considered part of that village? It's nice to hear someone else say it! :-)

    Also, when you wrote "might explain the origin of some human interaction behaviors (such as our ability to theorize about the intentions of others)" that made me think about the post and comments on Ask Moxie the other day when everyone talked about the comments from strangers. I suppose if we are programmed through thousands of years of evolution to feel the need to participate in raising all the children around us, no wonder strangers feel the need to comment on how others are parenting. It also explains the phenomenon of why people smile at and seem to love pregnant women and young children and parents of young children.

  2. Loved this post — thanks.

  3. I'm just surprised that Science had reviews of books re: parenting. Cool.

  4. Very cool. Thank you for sending me this link.

    One thing I loved about living in my hubby's small Italian village (pop. 1,500) is old people and crazy people could be "autonomous" in the sense they didn't need to be institutionalized. The village looked out for them.

    There was this one young guy who was loopy and on meds, but completely harmless. He could be free wandering around town with his routine and he wasn't a danger to himself or others. He was connected and not isolated, which I think would have worsened his depressive problems. He could have regular interaction with normal, supportive people.

    One day when he freaked out on the street (started tearing off his clothes), people came to his aid and assisted him. They called the right people and docs.

    Individuals like him and older people with mental problems would be doomed in the city, the US suburbs or any other "modern" living in a bubble community.

    The bad side (for me as an American used to privacy) was everyone knew your business and if they didn't they'd inquire, pry, spy and speculate.

    One funny example: I went to the outdoor market one day to buy a large plastic laundry tub to use as a bidet because our small house didn't have one. As I was carrying it home across the crowded piazza a lady stopped me and asked very loudly what I was buying the tub for, "Are you gonna use it to rinse your bits?!"

    My look of shock and horror told her and every other person watching us it was true. Nothing is sacred. Not even hygiene methods ;)

  5. I imagine (not having read the book) that in those flexible child-care arrangements of long ago, though, women probably saw their children a lot more throughout the day: that it was more like a very large playgroup where mothers could come and go, trusting their children to be watched when they went off for a while.

    That's my major beef with childcare. (No judging; my son's in daycare full-time right now.) You don't get to see your kid during the day and, if you're nursing, it's an enormous struggle to keep your supply going.

    I do agree we're evolving more flexible arrangements to support two-income families, and I hope that we'll get closer and closer to that sort of arrangement. I work from home part-time and that does allow me a lot more flexibility: part-time care, mother's helpers for when children are younger (that's what I'm doing with my daughter now), etc. I hope this will become the norm some day.

  6. Anonymous6:04 AM

    I don't know whether you are still interested in updating this post, but here is a great resource, a pdf about 64 scientists who are also mothers.
    (Or google mothers in science 64 ways to have it all)

    Another example is Kate Kirby, executive officer of APS and formerly at Harvard Smithsonian who has 4 kids.

  7. Anonymous8:18 AM

    Our Babies, Ourselves also summarizes research on this topic.

  8. This is great but you're missing one detail: Hunter-gatherer bands were families, first and foremost. Or small groups of 3 or 4 families, maybe. But definitely a group where everybody knew everybody else.

    You don't get that type of experience now unless you live in a small town. Even then you won't know everybody. I've heard that the upper tolerance limit for number of people you know actively in your day-to-day life is about 150. In my parents' hometown the population is somewhere between 1000 and 1500. No way do they all know one another extremely well.

    So, as often as not, we find ourselves in a situation where we are handing our children off to strangers. That is NOT a normal evolutionary experience.

    It matters because the evolution of our brain size means that most of what we learn about being human must come through culture, because if we were born with our brains fully developed, we'd kill our mothers coming out. Great for population control, not so great for maternal-child relationships. But to preserve the integrity of a culture, it must be people from within that culture who raise the children. If the children are taken by strangers and raised in some other culture, by definition they have been made into completely different people. They no longer, strictly speaking, belong to their people of origin. For instance, a Japanese family that emigrates to the United States and raises children here will witness their children becoming American (or some version thereof) and no longer being Japanese except in terms of physical appearance. Their Japanese-ness will go away because they're not being raised in Japan and are not steeped in its history and traditions.

    For Americans, being English and being French and being German disappeared the same way.

    I have enough trouble maintaining what cultural integrity I might have ever had. If I hand my daughter off to someone else to raise, even for eight hours a day, that is going to take her away from my life the way I was removed from my family's. (Dad was in the Navy and divorced my mom and remarried, and when he got custody of me I effectively lost my extended family. I'm Cajun, so that kind of mattered.) The worst part is it's not even going to be people she can count on seeing, being friends with and being around for the rest of her life, as she would have been able to expect in a tribe. Daycare and school are just taking care of her to get a paycheck, and after she's gone she'll be lucky if any of them remember her.

    We need to start thinking about what heritage we are passing down to our children when we make these kinds of decisions. And let's please compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges while we are doing so.

    And no, none of this means I'm xenophobic in the sense that I don't believe any other culture should exist besides my own. But in the sense that I don't want to adopt the culture of every random stranger who passes by me, I guess I sort of am. But that's a kind of xenophobia that allowed different cultures to develop in the first place and become distinct from one another. And there is nothing wrong with that. I bet you go around telling people you respect diversity. Maybe you better think about what that means--it does NOT mean people of rainbow hues all practicing the same culture.

  9. Wow, Dana- I think there is a lot that we're going to have to agree to disagree about. But briefly:

    - I don't consider the wonderful teachers at my daughters' day care "strangers". Some of them have become friends, and come to the kids' birthday parties, etc. There is one teacher who moved away who still sends us Christmas cards. But so what if they aren't like family? They do a great job, and both of my girls love day care.

    - I don't think I'm handing my daughters to day care to "raise". Mu husband and I are raising our daughters. Day care is just helping care for them part of the time. They spend more time with us than with day care.

    - I consider the day care providers to be in essentially the same culture as I am. They sing the same nursery rhymes and annoying kids' songs. We chose our day care carefully to ensure that we agreed with the values they teach. SOME of the teachers are of Mexican descent, and they teach some Spanish. I think that is great.

    Nowhere in my post did I say that my way of raising my kids was "best". It is just best for us, and I posted about a book that counters some of the common criticisms I hear about it. Your way is best for you, and there is no need to get all judgmental about the decisions other people make.


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