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A preschool lesson in parenting

U. CHICAGO (US)—Child care centers often do more than prepare kids for school. Research shows they also prepare parents to address the challenges of raising children by connecting them to other parents and to a network of resources.

“Parents come to school to find someone to care for their children, and they end up learning ways of taking care of each other,” says Mario Small, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago. “When you are a parent, particularly a first-time parent, the best resource you have is another parent.”

Small is the author of Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. The book, one of the first to look at the impact of child care centers on parents, finds a wide range of different outcomes for parents depending on their day care or preschool of choice.

Mothers particularly build up their network, or “social capital”—the contacts they need to navigate through problems—in a variety of ways. The research shows mothers with children in child care centers had at least one more good friend than other mothers, for instance.

The benefit extends to mothers from a range of economic situations. Non-poor mothers who made friends at day care centers were nearly 60 percent less likely to be depressed than those who did not make friends. Poor mothers were less likely to experience homelessness if their children were enrolled in day care centers, even if they had experienced homelessness before.

Small found that not all the networks are equal, however. Some centers encourage connections by organizing parties and events around Mother’s Day. Child care centers that have strict pick-up and drop-off times are more likely to have strong parent networks because more parents gather at the same time and likely know each other.

The differences emerged from research based on Small’s “Childcare Centers and Families Survey” of 300 randomly sampled centers in New York in 2004. In addition to interviews with parents and center staff, the research also included data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study of 3,500 mothers of children born between 1998 and 2000 in the nation’s 20 largest cities.

The information about services and connections with social service providers was particularly helpful to poor mothers. Agencies find centers a convenient way to reach the families they seek to serve. “Part of the reason the centers can serve as brokers is that they deal with a very targeted population,” Small explains.

Non-profit organizations, for instance, interested in reaching disadvantaged children with opportunities such as exposure to arts programs find it convenient to work through day care centers, his research shows. Agencies providing health care assistance and information about domestic violence also find it useful to visit day care centers and post notices of their services on bulletin boards, he adds.

“The reason this happens is because of the professional ethos of the centers. Over and over I heard center directors say, ‘You can’t take care of the child without taking care of the family,’” he notes.  Some centers, such as Head Start, receive government funding and are required to provide resource information.

Small found that centers in poorer neighborhoods, at least in New York, are more likely to get services than those in more well-to-do neighborhoods. The experience may vary in other parts of the country.

Agencies seeking to provide services to needy families tend to choose centers in high-poverty neighborhoods. As a result, poor parents who have children at a center in other communities get fewer opportunities, he says.

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