The Family Is the Whole Story on Child Care

University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman is considered the world authority on early childhood learning and child care policies.  He is notable for the “Heckman Equation”, which asserts that higher investment in a child’s early years pays great dividends later in life.  The word “investment” in a child’s early years has been taken to mean public dollars spent on public systems in universal programs for children, but this is not correct.

At a virtual event at the American Enterprise Institute, on February 25, 2021, in Washington, Dr. Heckman stated that “investment” in child care did not apply to public programs only, but also to the contribution of the family to the child’s upbringing.  He stated, “Nobody wants to talk about the family, and the family is the whole story. And it’s the whole story about a lot of social and economic issues.” He explained that the most essential investment in building children’s early skills derives from family environments and especially parenting. Efforts to advance disadvantaged children’s development, therefore, must focus, first and foremost, on boosting families’ capacity to advance their young children’s skills.

Dr. Heckman acknowledged that disadvantaged children benefit most from early childhood state intervention, but that such programs should also incorporate the parents in order to make them more successful.  The secret to early child care, he stated, is engaging the family and, in the case of single parents, frequently the mother is the family.

He went on to state that universal childcare proposals are often sold on the basis that they diminish inequality among children. The inequality, he said, has actually to do with family structure and values. The greatest benefit of universal daycare is to the disadvantaged child, not to the advantaged child. He states, “If you take someone from a quality environment and put them in an inferior environment [provided by a universal program], you can make them worse off”.

The Trudeau government’s proposed national day care program is to be based on the Quebec model of universal day care.  It is significant that Dr. Heckman referred to the latter model as the “warehousing of children”.  He noted that the research by Baker, Gruber, and Milligan (September 2015), published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), was solid research that showed poor outcomes in Quebec for children and parents. He asserted that the Quebec day care model was “fairly impersonal and there wasn’t any real quality”.

Dr. Heckman was unequivocal about the home and how it is undervalued and understudied in regard to raising children both in research and public policy. He champions the importance of mothers, who, he acknowledges, are generally still the ones taking primary responsibility for babies and toddlers even in our gender-neutral age.

It is significant, therefore, that one of the most cited men on the planet regarding early childhood learning and child care has confirmed that the home and attachment of a mother to her child is a “powerful force” and that the family should “get back into more of the centre of our lives”. He said, “Parents will always matter more than any program, or professional in a child’s life.”