Unexpected benefits of daycare

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are expecting our first and we’re on the fence about whether to hire a nanny or find a childcare center for our son. It would be great to have someone at home to take care of household chores, but our friends say that there are some great advantages—for us as parents—to having our child in daycare too. Is there any truth to this?

A: In a word, yes. While it’s every parent’s dream to come home to a sparkling clean house where the laundry and the toys have been put away and as healthy dinner’s on the table, having a child in daycare offers some definite benefits to parents as well as to kids. In fact, the same day as I got your email, I received a copy of a new book by Mario Small, a Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago, who has extensively studied a number of these benefits.

For example, in a daycare setting, you’ll get to interact with more parents than if you had a nanny caring for your child. Daycare parents often become each other’s support, helping each other navigate child rearing issues, sharing their concerns for their children’s development and health issues, helping out with emergency babysitting, and providing different perspectives on schools and extra-curricular activities. In short, it’s a way to expand the proverbial village.

Parents who send their children to daycare also have access to professionals (usually the staff and administration) who have at their disposal resources and a wealth of experience that they can share with parents. They’ll also be better able than a nanny (who probably hasn’t taken courses in child development) to identify any developmental or behavioral red flags.

But there’s more to day care than community building. In his book, Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life, Mario Small writes that mothers who put their children in daycare tend to have more friends than mothers who don’t. They also have a lower incidence of depression. And, interestingly, low-income families with children who are in daycare are less likely to become homeless than families who keep their children at home. More proof that the benefits of daycare extend far beyond the childcare room.

As for the children, yes, there are some wonderful advantages to leaving children at home with a nanny. It’s their home. They feel safe and comfortable there and can maintain the same routines that they have always enjoyed. Children who stay at home get plenty of one-on-one attention and don’t pick up as many viruses as daycare kids.

At the same time, there’s no question that in a good daycare setting, your child can thrive and learn all sorts of important social skills. He’ll be exposed to other children who will eventually start to seem like siblings. He’ll learn to eat around other people and will discover the all important skill of sharing. And while he’ll bring home a germ or two (or two dozen), studies have shown that children exposed to germs early in life actually have stronger immune systems and are more resilient when they start school.

As you hunt around for the best childcare option for your son, keep in mind that not all daycare centers are created equal. According to Mario Small, only centers that have strict pick-up/drop-off hours are beneficial to parents. Centers that are flexible in their scheduling don’t give parents enough opportunity to interact and to form that helpful network of connections.

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