It Takes a Community

By Ellen Frank

This article is from the January/February 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the January/February 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 215 cover

Not too long ago, my neighbor, Nikki, was entertaining a visitor from Peru. As they strolled along the streets of New York City, the visitor looked puzzled. "Where," she asked Nikki, "are all the children?" Nikki told me this story as I was running to pick up my own daughter from daycare, where, like more than half of American children, she had been stashed away all day.

My daughter, like other children missing in action from the streets of U.S. cities large and small, is largely invisible from public view. Along with the children of countless friends and neighbors, she passes her days in a world occupied almost exclusively by other children, parents, and the small number of teachers, baby-sitters, and day-care providers who work in this world for pay.

It may be, as the song says, that children are our future, but they aren't much a part of our here and now. The Children's Defense Fund found that children under six spend an average of 30 hours a week in daycare; school age children spend 40 or more hours in school and in after-school programs. All in all, American children spend half or more of their waking hours hidden away in supervised, child-centered environments.

With more mothers entering the full-time work force, and few fathers leaving it to stay home, the age of children's confinement to centers, play-groups, and pre-schools falls each year. According to Danielle Ewan of the National Child Care Information Center, 50% of one-year olds and 45% of children under one are enrolled in early care programs; 84% of five-year olds are in child care programs of some sort. No wonder our Peruvian visitor was alarmed. We are stowing our children out of view so effectively that the casual observer might wonder whether Americans are continuing to reproduce at all.

Much ink has been spilled debating the effects of day-care on children and families. As a parent, I'm beginning to worry more about how day-care affects our society. If the old African adage that "it takes a village to raise a child" is correct, what are the social consequences of sending our children to a remote village for the better part of each week? What happens to parents, to children, and to the rest of us when children are stored out of sight?

The invisibility of today's children contributes to some troubling trends for families, for children, and for our future as a civil society. The most obvious problem is that things placed out of sight tend quickly to slip from mind. When children are absent from or peripheral to most adult lives, we soon come to question why, exactly, they're around at all. They contribute nothing to the Gross Domestic Product. They don't work, nor do they play in public view, where others might take an interest in their antics. Little wonder, then, that children are sometimes discussed as if they were simply expensive playthings purchased for the personal enjoyment of their parents _ in lieu, perhaps, of a sporty car or a European tour. In a new economics textbook, for example, David Hyman presents prospective parents as rational consumers carefully weighing the delights of parenthood against the burdens of child-rearing. Babies are conceived, apparently, when the benefits of dimpled cheeks and Mother's Day cards exceed the cost of sleepless nights and orthodontist bills.

Columnist Kathleen Madigan, commenting on Business Week's recent work-family survey, wonders whether businesses ought to spend funds on helping parents "to watch soccer games or attend PTA meetings." Quoting childless workers who complained that company funds expended on work-family programs "amount to a subsidy for kids," Madigan chides firms that offer flexible scheduling to parents for implying "that some families are more valuable than others." Comments such as these have led work-family commentators, like Juliet Brudney, to fear a "work/family backlash" by childless employees who, having little experience of actual children, trivialize the work of parenting.

The problem goes beyond workplace issues. If children exist only to provide pleasure and companionship for their parents, then why should anyone else be bothered with their upbringing? On the principle that those who called the tune ought to pay the piper, childless adults frequently balk at the claims made by children and those who brought them into the world. School funding referenda are routinely defeated by non-parents, who see no reason to pay for other people's children. Welfare "reform" and other anti-child measures are strongly fueled by the belief that parents shouldn't have kids if they can't afford them.

When children are largely invisible, they make convenient scapegoats. In the workplace, corporate downsizing places intense pressure on the time and energy of all workers. Unwilling to cede any power to workers over staffing levels and hours, companies grant time off to parents only to step up the pressure on childless employees. A 1996 report for the Conference Board by Mary Young faults business for being deliberately ambiguous about "how much work is enough work" and forcing parents into direct competition with childless workers, who desire balanced lives of their own. Time-off from work becomes a scarce commodity and requests for more of it a zero-sum game rigged so that corporations win, while the next generation, ultimately, loses out.

Fearing anti-child backlash, parents are loathe to seek assistance or even to call attention to their children's existence. Arlie Hochschild, in her book Time Bind (see review on page 37) documents the tremendous social pressures on parents to hide their childcare worries behind a "supermom" facade. Anxious to avoid whispers by co-workers and supervisors that their children are interfering with their job performance, parents store their children out of sight all day, then rush home to cope in isolation with the demands of child-rearing. Networks of support that families tapped in earlier eras _ neighbors, siblings, nephews and nieces _ have disappeared. Indeed, a recent survey by consultants Mill & Pardee of Concord, Mass., found that "a lack of relatives and friends to help was the number one child care problem."

So parents tend to look within the obvious mutual support network of other parents for aid. Besides juggling the demands of their own jobs and children, parents are the first line of defense for dealing with other parents' crises. Other parents may not have much time, but at least they know our children exist and appreciate how difficult it can be to rear them. Other parents know something that childless adults _ isolated in their adults-only world, occasionally forget _ that it takes a community to rear a child. Raising children is difficult, exhausting, frustrating and far more work than any one parent, or pair of parents, can handle alone. Children need a community of interested adults to bring them up properly.

Who should be part of that community? Anyone who expects to live long enough to rely on the next generation. Anyone who expects, at some point, to rely on bodies and minds younger than their own. Any of us who plan to live another twenty, thirty, or forty years and to depend on people young enough, strong enough, and skilled enough to grow our food, heal our wounds, sew our clothing, mine our coal. Children really are our future and we need to make them a part of our present.

The responsibility for children cannot fall entirely on mothers and fathers. Parents or not, we are all members of a community and bear a mutual responsibility for the health and well-being of the next generation. It is not enough to fight for family-friendly programs and policies. While families could certainly use some friends, parents cannot and should not bear the full burden of raising society's children. The standard package of "pro-family" policies _ subsidized day-care, family leave, flexible scheduling _ are a help and would surely ease the burdens on parents.

In themselves, however, family-friendly programs only reinforce the isolation of parents and the invisibility of children. It takes a community to raise a child, and all its members have an obligation to pitch in. Let's fight instead for child-friendly _ or community-friendly _ policies: funds for youth service programs; paid leave for volunteers, tutors, mentors, and foster care-givers; more parks and public recreation spaces; transportation policies that promote safe, auto-free streets; housing policies that nurture safe and stable neighborhoods; and, above all, shorter working hours for all. Freeing up time for parents is not enough. We must also free up space _ space for children to run and play, in plain view and for all to see.

Resources: "Family Doesn't Always Mean Children," BusinessWeek, 9/15/97; "Work & Family," Wall Street Journal, 10/22/97; The Childless Employee, Conference Board, 1996; "Living With Work," Juliet Brudney, Boston Globe, 6/ 24/97; National Child Care Survey, 1990.
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