Day Care: A Need Crying to Be Heard

by Donald E. and Bonnie J. Messer

Dr. Messer is President of Dakota Wesleyan University and Mrs. Messer is a part-time teacher of social work at Dakota Wesleyan.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 6, 1974, pp. 1034-1037. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Joining forces with child-care professionals the churches can help protect both the best interests of children and the rights of parents against profiteers who are concerned for neither.

Clearly, the American family is experiencing unprecedented change. The nuclear family system has been described by some commentators as dead or dying. But while change cannot be stopped, one important way of reinforcing the family is to establish, throughout the nation, day-care centers to which parents can entrust their young children. Indeed, the Harvard child psychologist Jerome Kagan warns that if the family is to remain the central unit in our society, billions must be spent developing a system of day-care facilities.

Parents themselves are clamoring for such a system. University students and working mothers everywhere are demanding free day-care services for their children while they themselves pursue their studies or their jobs, and housewives are asking for relief from the pressures of 24-hour-a-day mothering. It was these demands, as well as the widespread fears of family disintegration, that prompted the 1970 White House Conference on Children to recommend as its number-one priority that "the Federal Government fund comprehensive child-care programs, which will be family centered, locally controlled, and universally available." Moreover, the 4,000 conference members insisted, day-care services must be understood "as a supplement, not a substitute, for the family as the primary agent for the child’s development as a human being."

In response to this recommendation, Congress passed comprehensive day-care legislation in 1971, but it was vetoed by President Nixon. In doing so Nixon gave support to reactionary arguments that new child-care services would weaken the American family structure and lead to "the sovietization of our children." The opposite is true. However, prospects of further federal legislation in this field appear dim at the moment.

Meanwhile, the need for child-care services is everywhere evident. As Carl Schoenberg, editor of Child Welfare, notes:

Day-care service to children and their families has had a historical development of rise and ebb reflecting national emergencies and socio-economic exigencies. These trends determined who advocated the criteria, goals, availability, and costs of the service. Today day care reflects the fight against poverty, the provision of career opportunities for women in the labor market, and programs that stimulate the early potentials for growth and development of the preschool child. These are social necessities that will not recede with shifts in the social tides; day care not only is now here to stay it will expand through all classes and subcultures in this country and elsewhere ["Foreword," The Changing Dimensions of Day Care (Child Welfare League of America, Inc., 1970)].

Americans often are accused of being "child-centered" to the exclusion of other legitimate concerns. In contrast to the popular Head Start program, however, day care is primarily meant to meet the needs of parents, which may or may not be identical with the best interests of their children. The question which confronts us is not whether women should work outside the home or whether day-care children’s centers should be established. Those questions have already been answered. Of every three working women, one is a mother, and 40 per cent of these mothers have preschool-age children. With skyrocketing inflation and liberating impulses toward self-fulfillment, these percentages can be expected to increase. As of today, 6 million children under the age of six have mothers who are working, but only 10 per cent of those children have access to a licensed day-care center. In addition, there are millions of "latchkey" children who come home to an empty house after school and are left unattended (save for the television set).

New Dimensions of Child-Rearing

Thus the need for more day-care centers is obvious. However, it is the quality of day-care programs now in existence or being developed that is of first importance. These programs represent a phenomenal new dimension of child-rearing on the American scene. Here the Christian church, with its historic emphasis on the family, can play a strategic role. Joining forces with child-care professionals, we can help protect both the best interests of children and the rights of parents against grasping profiteers who are concerned for neither. For one thing, we need to resist "kennel"-type operations, which permit 24-hour care for infants and preschoolers.

It is of course a fact that day-care centers are not a radically new concept in the U.S. Back in 1863, during the Civil War, an agency in Philadelphia offered care for children whose mothers were hired to make uniforms and bandages for the Union army. In the Depression days of the 1930s the WPA set up centers to look after the children of poor families (and at the same time to give employment to teachers and nurses). And during World War II, when so many mothers took jobs in the country’s factories, child-care centers multiplied. Many industries provided in-plant facilities, and federally financed centers were opened in highly industrial areas. However, once the national emergency was over, most of those facilities were closed on the assumption that women would resume their "normal" role as mothers and housewives. In contrast, countries like Israel, Sweden and the U.S.S.R. have developed day care extensively in the past 20 years.

Early understanding of what constituted quality day care was severely limited. The primary emphasis was on meeting children’s physical needs: shelter and adequate diet, and protection from danger and abuse. Nurses in white uniforms symbolized the sterility of this approach. The trends today are more comprehensive and creative. Concern for the physical safety of children has not diminished, but quality day care is psychosocially oriented, stressing optimum opportunities for a child’s emotional, mental and bodily growth. As Bettye M. Caldwell writes, "Day Care can no more be separated from education than it can from welfare or health" (Saturday Review, February 20, 1971, p. 48).

We all know that a child’s outlook and approach to life are decisively conditioned in the formative years, for in those years he or she learns not only the alphabet but values. Hence it is important that the persons in charge of the young child share the parents’ value system or at least feel an obligation to it. Such persons, however, are hard to find. Grandmother no longer lives nearby, or else she is busy with her own work, while babysitters are often unreliable even if available. To further complicate the situation, in too many cases parents have no options when it comes to selecting a center for their child to attend. Countless communities in this country simply refuse to develop their resources in this field. The only thing they offer is impersonal centers operated primarily for profit, with a fast turnover of underpaid staff. Such an environment is bound to have long-range negative effects on the personality development and character formation of the children subjected to it. Children lacking consistent, caring "mother and father figures" have difficulty discovering their own worth and selfhood.

The Need for a Secure Environment

Happily, the churches are beginning to take great interest in starting child-care centers. Their object is not to inculcate specific religious doctrines, but rather to provide structures whose staff and program embody the values of love and individual attention.

The Head Start program which captured the public imagination in the 1960s was conceived of as a means of elevating the so-called "culturally deprived." Day care in the 1970s has more encompassing purposes. The professionally trained people in charge of the centers are able to meet a variety of needs besides those of working parents and of AFDC mothers who seek schooling in order to walk the bridge from welfare to employment. For instance, children of emotionally disturbed or alcoholic parents are sometimes placed in the enriching atmosphere of day-care centers rather than in foster homes. Children with special learning, speech or emotional problems are often placed there too, and in many cases are helped through selective participation with groups of "well-balanced," healthy children. More broadly speaking, the interaction between staff and children facilitates the latter’s ability to communicate. It has been noted that parents too busy to talk with their children are making them "verbal cripples."

The need for care does not end when children start school. Every day over a million youngsters over six are unsupervised for several hours before their parents return from work. They desperately need after-school care -- a secure environment where they can be safe from physical harm, improve their socialization skills, relate to interested adults, and be removed from the temptations of wandering on the street.

The Case for Church Involvement

As we have said, day care is an area in which the church can and should play an important role. After all, the church is oriented to meeting human need, and love of little children is one of its cardinal emphases. But there are also specific reasons why the church and its members should be involved:

First, Christians should be involved because of the decisive impact day care may have on family life in America. If children are to be nurtured in a stable, loving environment, nursery schools and day-care centers of quality are a must. The trend toward women’s liberation appears to be irreversible. Certainly more and more mothers of even very young children are away from home, at jobs, many hours every day. Hence the need to develop centers where day care will be "a supplement, not a substitute" for the home.

Second, Christians should be involved in order to promote higher-quality care. At present, quality is threatened by business interests which view child care as a financial enterprise that promises to yield a sizable profit. So far, more than 20 franchising operations -- including a fried-chicken chain and a toy manufacturer -- have sought permission to establish chains of day-care centers across the country. Among the services envisioned are 24-hour facilities where a child can be placed while the parents take a vacation. Perhaps profitable centers are required, but we must beware of losing the "human" element which is vital in the care of children.

Unless churches provide funds and facilities for day-care programs, they will scarcely have opportunity to influence either the policies of local institutions or the standards contemplated by state and federal licensing authorities. Our own battles against the lowering of standards in South Dakota have made us aware of the demonic tendency to sacrifice quality care for another person’s child at the altar of the profit-motive. Children have few lobbyists. Unless the church actively pleads their case before our federal and state legislatures, their need for day care is likely to find only minimal response.

Third, Christians should be involved because God calls us to meet unmet human needs. Concern for the orphan and the widow and love of children are a deep Judeo-Christian tradition. Theologically, the church must understand itself as the "servant-critic" of day care, serving the genuine needs of families and communities yet remaining free to judge and to promote higher standards of humane care.

The sad fact is that when it comes to services for children, the U.S. is an underdeveloped nation. Day care in America is a need crying to be heard. At present the federal government provides only limited funds directly for day care. What money is available for this purpose is channeled through programs for disadvantaged and low-income families (e.g., Head Start and the Work Incentive Program). Children from middle-income homes are ineligible for these programs; and of those who are eligible, most are being neglected: openings exist for only 10 per cent of those needing any care. The challenge for the church is to create or help to create openings for an additional 4,850,000 children.

The church can meet the challenge. For instance, local congregations can exercise responsible stewardship by making full use of the resources and facilities they already possess. In thousands of American communities, large or small, fine Christian-education buildings sit empty most of the week. Some churches have now turned these tax-free structures into day-care centers to meet the public need; but too many churches keep them closed most of the time, and reserve them exclusively for private use on weekends and special occasions. Yet a relatively small financial investment would enable them to adapt these buildings to other uses and thus to contribute greatly to the solution of a social problem that looms large in the 1970s and beyond. The needs of America’s children cannot be met unless the churches open their doors for service.

Incidentally, child care offers a unique opportunity for church-state cooperation. Church and state share a fundamental concern for the protection of children and the preservation of family life. And, since religious indoctrination is not the purpose of the church’s involvement in day care, government can legitimately assist families in church-sponsored programs.

In centuries past the church pioneered in social services by establishing colleges, orphanages and hospitals. Today offers a new opportunity for Christian witness. As America celebrates its bicentennial, the church can advance the nation’s welfare and strengthen its family life by promoting the development of quality child-care centers. A button issued by the Child Development Council of America captures the spirit that should move us. The button reads: "Birthday Parties Are For Kids -- Child Care ‘76." Let Christians do their part to make Americas 200th birthday a new beginning for America’s children.