Why the Market Can’t Raise Our Children for Us

Friday, October 30, 1998

The typical free market argument in the child care debate runs approximately as follows: Markets give people what they want, at lower cost, and with greater sensitivity to true needs than any governmental service can. Therefore, the market should provide child care. Just keep the government out of it. End of argument.

I believe it is a mistake for advocates of the free market (of which I am one) to build their case in this way. For while it’s true that market-provided child care will usually be far superior to governmental versions, it’s not true that market-provided child care will necessarily be adequate. Let me explain how I arrived at this seemingly paradoxical conclusion.

I am an economist by training, currently living in Silicon Valley. Before I became a mother, I was sympathetic with the argument that the market would provide good enough child care to allow me to continue my career. I was predisposed to become the stereotypical working mother. Put the kids in day care. Hire a nanny. Don’t allow children to deter you from pursuing your career. In my case, it was not radical feminism that influenced my thinking. It was conservative economics, with its emphasis on income maximizing and career building. I had no idea how much my working would affect my children and no way of anticipating how much motherhood would alter my own attitudes.

In a nutshell, the problem with the “markets will provide” argument is that it concedes too many dubious premises to the feminist worldview. For example, “The work of parents, and particularly mothers, is not especially challenging, difficult, or important. Therefore, providing substitutes for mothers’ care of children poses no problem.” In other words, any idiot can provide perfectly adequate child care. Or, “The work women do in the market is more socially valuable than the work they do in the home, at least for highly educated, highly skilled women. So a corporate lawyer is perfectly rational to hire an illegal alien to care for her children while she goes off each day to earn big bucks.” In other words, some women are too important to take care of their own children.

These are things I might have said in the days before I became a mother, when I could analyze child care as nothing but an economic issue. But when I consider my own particular children, rather than hypothetical children, I cannot be convinced for a minute of the truth of these claims. There is no good substitute for my care. I can hire help once in a while, but hired help cannot create a home or raise a child. I can no longer accept the claim that the size of my paycheck measures the value of my contributions to society. My monetary income has shrunk since I became a mother, but my societal contributions as a mother exceed the number of dollars typed on my W-2 form at the end of the year.

The most insidious hidden premise behind the push for day care is that all women want to work. My observation is that most mothers of small children do not want “high-quality day care.” Many prefer not to work at all or to have other family members care for their children.

In no case should we assume that women’s wants are completely given. Many women, of various ideologies and all income levels, have been seduced by the siren calls of feminist theorizing. Some of us have come to believe that our self-esteem depends on our jobs or that we appear weak if we admit that taking care of children is enjoyable. Some women assume that child care is mind-numbing, spirit-killing drudgery and that only work outside the home is fulfilling. These are not necessarily statements that women would come up with spontaneously, in the absence of feminist tutoring.

For many feminists, the overwhelming argument in favor of women working is that women with paychecks are more powerful than women without any income of their own. Those of us who admire the free market agree that dollar power is real power. But dollar power is not the only kind of power. Losing control over what happens to one’s children is for many women a devastating loss of power. Surrendering day-to-day contact with one’s children, giving up the ability to influence their development, surely these count as losses of power for any mother or father.

Finally, we know that “the market will provide” doesn’t mean every family will find a perfect “Mary Poppins” as a live-in nanny. The market will provide much less costly care for the vast majority of families. Paid child care can only be an economical choice for lower-income women if the cost is lower than their own wages. This lower-cost child care will in practice mean using economies of scale by caring for children in groups, either in someone’s home or in day care centers. Group care will necessarily be the market-provided solution for the vast majority of women.

As a mother, I no longer accept the claim that the size of my paycheck measures the value of my contributions to society.

Unfortunately, research shows extensive group care isn’t healthy for infants. Brand-new babies don’t need to interact with each other. Other infants compete for adult attentiveness. If infants need any contact with other children at all, they need the doting attention of older siblings. Older brothers and sisters provide role models for talking, crawling up stairs, walking, eating with a spoon, and lots of other things. An infant in a day care center is unlikely to receive the rich attentiveness that is possible inside a family.

Here is a modern irony: One of the arguments against large families is that children in small families receive more attention from their parents. On the other hand, modern families are willing to leave their children in group care, with child/adult ratios of four to one considered “high-quality care” for children from six weeks old up to age two.

I have many Catholic friends who home school their children. Some of these families have as many as ten children. I cannot think of a single such family with four children under the age of two or ten preschool children or twenty second-graders. (As we say in Silicon Valley, do the math.) Children of large families at least have each other. Does anybody really think that children are better off with no siblings and their days spent in small herds with paid caretakers?

Does anyone really think that children are better off spending their days in small herds with paid caretakers?

Social science research suggests that too much child care at too young an age places a child at risk for being insecurely attached to his parents. Insecure attachments, in turn, have been correlated with difficulties in later childhood, including low tolerance for frustration, less willingness to take risks, less ability to empathize with others, and a greater tendency to have temper tantrums. Secure attachments, in contrast, seem to be the foundation for self-confidence and trust. Surely advocates of the free market can’t be indifferent about which kinds of traits children develop. A laissez- faire world, after all, requires adults who can restrain themselves, who have regard for others, and who can trust and be trustworthy.

There are inherent limits to how much responsibility parents can delegate to people caring for their children. To explain, let me summarize my own activities as a stay-at-home-mom on any given day.

One of my children has such a tender conscience that she bursts into tears at the realization of having done something wrong. The other requires a small two-by-four to get that same message. One child plays every injury for maximum drama, demanding a Band-Aid for microscopic boo-boos. The other child is so impervious to pain if you hear a whimper out of him it’s best to just dial 911.

Then there is the job of providing encouragement—skating the fine line between asking too much too soon and making necessary demands for improvement. How much writing should I expect of the child for whom holding a pencil is a major effort? (Meanwhile, the younger child can write little stories without breaking a sweat.) I know what these children are capable of doing. One thing they are fully capable of doing is bamboozling a stranger into thinking they can’t do much. There is, however, no point in asking them to do something so far out of their capacity that I might as well be asking them to solve a differential equation.

In their social interactions with each other and neighborhood children, my son and daughter need more than generalized instructions to share and be nice. Sometimes they’d like to persuade another child to play but have no idea what to offer. They might be able to formulate the thought, “I want that other kid’s toy. I know my mom does not want me to punch him to get it,” but then get stuck. They need coaching, not only of their actions but also of their words and even thoughts. Knowing when a particular child is ready to go to a new level, knowing what level of abstraction he can grasp, knowing how much frustration he can tolerate—this is the daily work of motherhood.

Now I ask you: Who am I going to pay to do all this? How am I going to give instructions in sufficient detail to a babysitter? There is of course nothing wrong with hiring some help. But it is not possible to delegate to either the government or the market the innumerable tasks that go into raising any particular child.

Those of us who once accepted the arguments in favor of paid child care didn’t realize how much individual attention we actually received when we were very young and how difficult it would be to pay someone else to give our own kids what we took for granted. Little did we know how much our mother’s help with homework blunted the impact of impersonal schools. Those talks around the kitchen table gave us more than we realized, guidance that can’t easily be imparted by a nanny or day care worker. Nor did we have any idea how much we benefited from our relationships with our siblings—connections impossible to replicate in classrooms.

As for claims that freeing women from the demands of child raising is a kind of liberation—is most work in the market really so glamorous and fulfilling? Instead of finding intelligent women molding members of America’s next generation, we now find them stacked in law offices writing wills and doing house closings. Instead of introducing their own children to great literature and world history, bright women are sequestered in university offices, grading piles of illegible midterms written by other people’s children. How did we forget that guiding our offspring requires knowledge far more subtle, and pays bounties far richer, than most jobs?

How did we forget that guiding our children requires knowl-edge far more subtle, and pays bounties far richer, than most jobs?

Lots of women are now realizing what many men have known all along: Working is not always fun or satisfying. Most of the tasks men do in the labor force contain large amounts of drudgery. The millions of fathers who get up in the morning to go to work, day after long day, don’t usually do it because their jobs are intrinsically fulfilling. Most of them, much of the time, work out of love of their families.

It is attachment to their wives and children that keeps men reporting as truck mechanics and cab drivers. It is a sense of loving duty that keeps men standing on subway platforms that lead to fluorescent-lit offices. The drudgery of caring for small children is nothing compared to the drudgery of factory work or a data entry job. For many workers, the tedium of a humdrum job is relieved more than anything else by coming home to a noisy household.

Some Americans conceive of personal liberty as the right to do anything they want, so long as it is peaceful and noncoercive. In this conception, individuals have a responsibility only to refrain from using force and from defrauding others.

This is an insufficient vision of the individual’s responsibility within a self-governing society. Delegating most of the care of a child to hired help is not force or fraud. It is, however, an extremely negligent act. A free society cannot long survive if large numbers of people choose to discharge their parental duties in this perfunctory way.

The basic problem with the market as a child care provider is that we end up relying on it too much—because it is so convenient. The market is a wonderful institution because it gives us what we want. When our wants are skewed, the market satisfies them just the same. In this way markets reveal parts of us that we might prefer not to see.

But when we observe the truth about ourselves, we can change. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that my two children needed me at home more than they needed anything my income would buy for them. It took even longer for me to realize that placing my intellect at the service of my family was a greater challenge than my ordinary life as a university professor. I had accepted far more feminist premises than I had realized. It is my hope that these thoughts will help other mothers who are wavering to take the plunge and do what they really want to do: stay home.