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by Patricia Jara

jardin de infantes

A few days ago, I met Paulina in an electronics store. She made the comment that it was her last day of work; she quit so she could take care of Manolo, her three-year-old son. Paulina, her husband and their son live in a tiny prefabricated house that they set up in her mother-in-law’s backyard. They both make minimum wage, and their combined pay is less than what they need to live better. The family would benefit from Paulina working full time; however, she’s going to stay at home. There’s a preschool five blocks from their home, but these parents have decided not to enroll their son. This is not an isolated situation: in Chile, nearly half of the children who don’t attend child care centers or preschools belong to households in the first income quintile. What explains this situation?

There’s no doubt that the lack of child care facilities and slots, as well as some poorly located centers where there’s no demand, are clear obstacles. However, there are cultural factors that explain most parents’ decisions to not send their children to child care centers. According to the National Socioeconomic Survey [link in Spanish], 8 out of 10 families that choose not to enroll their children in daycare centers or preschools do so because they say that they can take care of the children at home, or because they find it unnecessary to send their children at such an early age. Among the latter, most think that preschool is useful only because it prepares children to perform better in school.

Among its primary goals, the program outlined by President Michelle Bachelet’s administration includes significant expansion of the supply of child care and preschool services, a decision that has been greeted as good news because new slots mean more opportunities to tackle inequalities beginning in the first years of life. But it is also important to address limitations on access from the demand side.

An expansion policy of this nature requires 1) in-depth knowledge of the factors that influence whether a family sends its child to a daycare or preschool and 2) the generation of strategies based on this knowledge to promote demand. At this point, coverage expansion measures face a double challenge. On one hand, these policies must work around families’ beliefs about the care and education of their children. Many parents view nursery schools and preschools as merely an alternative form of child care. Moreover, in many sectors, the strong, prevailing belief is that it is the mother who is responsible for caring for her children, for as long as possible, which generates apprehension about the role of educators and the care provided to children at these facilities. In the post “Too Young for Child Care?” we talked about this very topic in the Uruguayan context.

On the other hand, the program must meet families’ expectations about the quality of care to be provided to their children. In addition to providing information, the best way to stimulate demand is to offer quality services. Center characteristics that are most important to families relate to aspects such as safety, infrastructure, hygiene, separate bathrooms, provision of meals, child-to-caregiver ratio, the possibility for parents to visit the day care or preschool at any time, and official recognition or institutional backing. Mostly, however, they relate to how educators treat the children or what specialists refer to as the quality of processes or interactions between them. Without question, these are basic standards that must form part of the policy.

I discussed this with Paulina. I don’t know if she’ll change her mind about quitting her job in order to take care of Manolo, but at least she was excited about the idea of going to see the daycare center. Do the parents in your community feel the same as Paulina about preschool? Share this post if you think it’s important to bring this issue to their attention.

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