Day Care : Why What We Call Child Care Matters

In March last year, a study was published in Science magazine that contained remarkable statistics about the effects of good child care on later life. Briefly, it was found that not only did people who received stimulating, appropriate care in their earliest days have stronger cognitive abilities, compared to a control group who did not, they were also notably healthier physically once they reached adulthood. This study makes plain what logic has always dictated but what we in the United States don’t always act on at the institutional level. Good child care from the earliest days — both at home and when the parents are at work — is absolutely crucial to the development of healthy, productive adults.

The authors of the study use the term “high quality early childhood program” to describe the kind of care that the children who grew up to be healthier received. But when the story was reported in the New York Times, the paper used the term “full-time day care” to describe the program. For those of us in the field of early childhood development, the term day care, so common that even an august institution like the New York Times would use it, day care is a maddening phrase. Here’s why: the term day care diminishes how complex and nuanced offering good quality child care is.

Despite the millions of people who must use child care outside the home, for many of us, day care, unlike the term preschool, conjures up visions of children warehoused all day in an uninviting, unstimulating environment. This stereotype has been fostered by the unevenness in quality of the early childhood care that is available. Unfortunately, there are terrible child care programs like this — but the best of them provide care that serves the child and the family far beyond the “day” and well into the rest of the family’s life.

The term “day care” emphasizes the fact that the child is away from home all day as opposed to the fact that what’s happening (if it’s going as it should) is that the child is being molded for life — and if he or she spends 40 hours a week in a child care program, it can be as important or arguably more important than time at home. Further, in a good child care program, the parents learn as well, as is further demonstrated in the Science study. Work like educating children in many ways — from teaching math concepts and letter recognition, to helping them learn how to label and understand their emotions, and how to get along with others — and the list goes on, and on, and on. To genuinely care for the child as a whole human being with thoughts, feelings, needs, and the ability to learn, no matter their age. Child care professionals care for children, so we should call the work that they do “child care” or even better “early childhood education.”

The term day care prioritizes the “day” over the “care” — and days don’t need any care. They just roll along on their own. We know children do not roll along successfully on their own. We know the good outcomes that can occur when they receive good care — this recent study proves it yet again. And that’s why it’s so crucial that these programs and the skilled people who serve them need to be named properly. High quality early childhood education comes in many forms — and its benefits last far more than a day.


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