toplines: The Old and the Restless

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Home Grown Parents say their children are better off at home than in day care.

The June Cleaver style of parenting may be making a comeback. Seventy percent of parents with children under the age of five say that having one parent stay at home with the kiddies is the best way to care for them, according to a national study by Public Agenda. Nearly half (47 percent) report that, in their own household, one parent stays home to avoid placing their bundles of joy in day care. By a margin of 81 percent to 1 percent, parents feel that children who are cared for by a stay-at-home parent are more likely to get affection and attention than they would in a day-care center. Forty-four percent also feel that children are more likely to learn basic values such as honesty and responsibility from a stay-at-home parent.

"Parents express a strong sense of responsibility for their children, trusting no one as much as themselves to care for them," says Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda. "Their desire to make sure that their children absorb the values that they believe in is almost tangible."

The study, entitled "Necessary Compromises: How Parents, Employers and Children's Advocates View Child Care Today," found that 79 percent of parents agree with the statement "no one can do as good a job of raising children as their own parents." And although many parents concede that day-care facilities can provide socialization and education, 46 percent agree that putting their child in a day-care center is their least preferred arrangement. This sentiment holds true even among younger moms, many of whose own mothers had full-time careers and used day care: 80 percent of 18- to 29-year-old mothers say they prefer to stay at home when their children are young rather than work.

"Child care - particularly the day-care center - has become an icon of social distrust, eliciting the harsh conviction that few can be trusted," writes Wadsworth in the report. In fact, 70 percent of parents agree with the statement "parents should only rely on a day-care center when they have no other option." A majority of parents with young children (62 percent) say that they are "very concerned" that their kids will be neglected or left unsupervised, 63 percent fear sexual or physical abuse, and 52 percent worry that they will pick up bad manners or behavior from other youngsters. Those concerns are even greater for low-income parents (with annual household incomes of less than $25,000): 72 percent fear lack of supervision, 76 percent worry about abuse, and 61 percent are concerned about bad habit formation.

While the children advocates surveyed have some similar opinions as parents - 71 percent say that having one parent at home is the best arrangement - they disagree that day-care centers are fundamentally unable to provide adequate supervision. Seventy-eight percent of children's advocates agree that top-notch day-care centers can provide children with attention equal to that of a stay-at-home parent. Eighty-six percent of them say that the most serious problem is the lack of affordable, quality day care where parents can feel their children are getting good care. Just 13 percent say that too few families keeping one parent at home is a serious problem.

These differences between parents' and advocates' attitudes toward sufficient child care are illustrated in their policy views (see chart). Employers say that on-site facilities are a good theoretical solution, but not often feasible. Some 81 percent agree that on-site day care is more reliable than off-site, and yet 93 percent agree that few companies have the expertise or resources to run a high-quality day-care center. And 90 percent say that it's too expensive for most small companies to provide significant child care benefits.

"It may be wise for advocates to revisit their plans and programs, listening hard to what parents say - their fear and distrust of existing day care, their concern about children's moral development, their desire to stay close by when their children are small," says Wadsworth. "Although parents and advocates share many goals, there are indications from this research that they sometimes talk past each other."

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