Susan Madsen: Childcare controversy falls into the either/or trap

The issue is much more complex than the political debate would suggest.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Children smile at YWCA Utah’s Lolie Eccles Early Education Center in downtown Salt Lake City, a nationally accredited early education and childcare facility.

There’s been a lot of controversy lately over childcare, with some claiming it can harm children long term and others stating it’s actually an ideal developmental environment. Sen. Mitt Romney weighed in on the debate Tuesday, stating, “I didn’t realize I was at a disadvantage because my mom stayed home.”

Amid the fighting over the pros and cons, once again we see the debate falling into the either/or trap and failing to recognize the complexity of this issue that so many families face.

As someone who has studied this issue and its impact for years, I know that it is anything but black and white. The first mistake is to view it as a “women’s issue.” It’s time to acknowledge that research shows childcare is important to men, children, families, communities, governments, businesses and the economy in general. With 60% of Utah women in the labor force, 62% of those having children under the age of six only, and 74% of women with children 6 to 17 only — it impacts us all in some way.

Which brings me to the next misconception: the idea that childcare is a private matter for individuals to deal with. One recent study in the U.S. concluded that “a lack of childcare options costs the U.S. economy $57 billion per year in lost earnings, productivity and revenue.” That same study showed that 86% of primary caregivers reported that issues with childcare harmed their commitments at work, resulting in reprimands, demotions and even being fired.

The ripples of that affect us all.

As people argue over “letting someone else raise your child” or staying home full time, they ignore the reality that Utah women work part time at the highest rate in the country. And many “full time moms” take chunks of their day to volunteer with church, school or other pursuits. Is it OK for a child to be watched by another as long as the parent is not getting paid? The truth is very few parents are with a child 24/7, and that’s OK.

Most people agree, both experts and average parents alike, that all kids benefit from the “village” approach to raising children. The anthropological term is “alloparent,” which describes someone who cares for a child who is not their offspring. In my own life I know that there have been teachers, church volunteers and neighbors who have loved and supported my children in so many positive ways. I am deeply grateful for these people and know I have loved taking on this role for others’ children as well. Kids need a whole team: parents and family and all the people who help raise them. And being paid to do it does not diminish the care given or lessen the love people feel as they tend to our children.

Ultimately, I believe we should support families in their circumstances as they balance the various needs of the family, whether financial, emotional, physical, or most likely, a combination of issues. Because the truth is life is not an either/or proposition, and the sooner we embrace that, the sooner we will be in a position to better support the families in our neighborhoods, communities, our state, and our nation.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University.