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Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001

Caring for Our Youngest: Public Attitudes in the United States
Kathleen Sylvester


Families make choices about employment and care for their children in a context that is shaped by public policies and colored by public opinion. Debates over whether the government should increase funding for child care or do more to help parents stay home with their children reflect tensions among strongly held ideas about family life, work, and the role of government. This article summarizes the results of public opinion polls that probe attitudes about parent and government roles and responsibilities with respect to children's care.

The polling findings yield three main lessons:

  • The American public believes that parents should be the primary influence in their children's lives and that it is best if mothers can be home to care for the very young.
  • The public also values family self-sufficiency and understands that low-income families may need child care assistance to balance child rearing and employment responsibilities.
  • However, skepticism about the appropriateness of government involvement in family life limits public support for proposals that the government act directly to provide or improve child care.

From these lessons, the author draws several conclusions for policymakers:

  • Policies focused on caregiving should respect the rights of parents to raise their children by ensuring that an array of options is available.
  • Public programs should help families who are struggling economically to balance their obligations to work and family.
  • Rather than directly providing child care services, government should fund community-based child care programs, and provide flexible assistance to help families secure the services they need and want.