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

Reports from the Field: Child Care Within the Family
Caroline Zinsser


Who cares for the nation's infants and toddlers? For one of every two children under age three whose mother works, the face of the caregiver belongs to a family member—a parent or a relative. This pattern has held steady for decades, despite dramatic changes in families and child care options. Mothers (and grandmothers) have increasingly entered the labor force, divorce and single parenthood have restructured families, and young parents are likely to live at a distance from their own parents. A growing number of child care centers now serve infants and toddlers, advertising the educational opportunities they offer to the very young. Even so, children under age three are less likely to spend their days in a center than they are to be with a relative, such as a grandmother or an aunt.1

Controversy has come to surround this traditional form of care, however, as the child care profession has matured. The care that relatives provide is often disparaged as nothing more than "baby-sitting." Because many relative caregivers lack child care training, are invisible to state authorities, and work for little or no compensation, their work is seen by some child care advocates as threatening the drive toward professionalism in the child care field. These criticisms have sharpened in recent years, as public child care subsidies have increasingly been used to reimburse relatives, whereas before the 1990s, public subsidies were often reserved for care provided in formal child care settings that were licensed by authorities. Although there are those who view public support of relative care as an undesirable trend,2 others stress its value to families who find this form of care best suited to their needs.

Despite differing opinions about these policy issues, however, most observers agree that much remains to be learned about the child care that occurs within families.3,4 This article briefly describes an ethnographic study of unregulated child care in a working class community in the Northeast (dubbed East Urban).5 As described in Boxes 1 and 2, this study documented the child care choices and experiences of working families in East Urban, many of whom trusted and preferred care by relatives to other child care options. The study concluded by discussing what it means to respect parental choices, judgments, and values concerning child care—even when these choices differ from those that professionals might make. This article builds on the study's insights by describing current thinking about how to judge and strengthen the quality of the care that relatives offer to children.