Child care: what Canadian parents need now

Listen up, politicians, as Today's Parent readers tell it like it is

Here’s how the week shapes up for 21-month-old Ryan Kennedy of Vancouver. Monday to Wednesday, he spends the day at a licensed child care centre. Thursday, he’s home with Dad until 3:30, when Tony Kennedy leaves for his afternoon shift as a counsellor in a halfway house. Grandma fills the two-hour gap until Ryan’s mom, Joselyn, gets home from her job as a dietitian. On Fridays, Ryan is home with Mom on her day “off” (she works 30 hours over the other four days). Tony, who works later on Fridays, is around until mid-afternoon.

That’s just one snapshot of the complicated web of child care arrangements Canadian families are using these days.

The Kennedys feel lucky to be able to combine at-home parenting and child care. But it was hard to find part-time licensed care, Joselyn says. “In fact, we had to take and pay for a full-time spot until a part-time space became available three months later.” Landing that full-time spot was a nail-biter: They got the call when Ryan was just a week shy of his first birthday, although they’d been on the waiting list since the third month of Joselyn’s pregnancy. She’d like to see government investment to increase the number of part-time and infant spots in licensed child care centres.

Canadians have been debating child care for years: How much? What kind? Who pays? We’ve heard from politicians and experts. Today’s Parent decided to go to the front lines and talk to families who are trying to care for their kids while earning a living. In an online survey conducted in September, we asked parents what kinds of child care they use, what they think of it, what problems they have and how governments could help.

Our readers were eager to weigh in. Their responses — 5,284 in total, from mostly anglophone, middle-class mothers living outside Quebec – suggest that there’s nothing simple about contemporary families’ child care needs. Specifically:

• Finding, keeping and paying for care isn’t easy.
• Part-time arrangements are common, including having a parent at home.
• Many parents have concerns about the quality of care that’s available to them.
• Parents’ wish list for government child care policy goes well beyond the narrow choices the major parties were offering in the last election campaign (more on that below).
• There’s surprising consensus between employed and stay-at-home parents as to what families really need.

About three-quarters of our respondents participate in the labour force, including 39 percent employed full-time, 12 percent working part-time, six percent self-employed and 18 percent who were on maternity leave when they answered the survey. The child care arrangements of all respondents are listed in the chart at right.

Parenting at home full-time is the most prevalent type of care, used by more than one-third of the parents polled (although some are moms on maternity leave who will be returning to work). That’s more than twice as many as send their kids to a daycare centre, which was the second most common choice. Many families use multiple arrangements to stitch their week together. That accounts for the remarkably high prevalence of part-time care — fully 43 percent of the arrangements listed. Seventeen percent of respondents did not list any of their child care arrangements as full-time.

On the flip side, some stay-at-home moms might be in the paid labour force (at least part-time) if it were easier to find good, affordable child care. Families who were parenting at home were only slightly less likely than employed parents to cite concerns about quality of care, and many of them also reported problems finding care, including part-time or outside normal working hours. Note also that parents who were at home or working part time were more likely than employed parents to say they’d had trouble finding a space for a child with special needs. Might some of these parents be employed outside the home if they were more comfortable with the quality of care, or if they could find a space that met their needs?

Satisfied customers

In spite of all the problems they reported, most respondents were satisfied with their current care arrangements.

Why? For some parents, like Lanoue, after a long, anxious search, things work out in the end. Others, like Gormanshaw, simply leave a situation that’s not working. However, it’s worth noting that researchers have found that parents tend to be optimistic when assessing their children’s care, so much so that they call it a “positivity bias.”

We asked survey respondents to select their top four priorities from 10 possible components of a national child care policy (see their choices on p. 106). It’s striking that none of the top four selections have to do with issues discussed by the major parties in the last election. In 2005, the governing Liberals and the NDP established a $5 billion plan to create more daycare spaces and enhance the regulated child care system. When the Conservatives were elected last January, they scrapped that plan in favour of a national child care benefit, which puts $100 a month directly into the hands of parents of each child under six.

Some of the choices in our survey appear linked with a parent’s employment status. For example, it’s hardly surprising that at-home parents were much more likely than employed parents (82 percent vs. 25 percent) to favour a tax break or credit for stay-at-home parents. It also makes sense that reduced fees tied for second choice among those employed full-time, and that the top choice of moms on maternity leave was longer maternity or parental leave.

However, other data show that the child care world may not be as polarized into employed mom vs. stay-at-home mom camps as the sometimes media like to portray. Two in five stay-at-home parents support the idea of funding to reduce child care fees. And 28 percent of stay-at-home parents picked improving quality of child care as one of their top four priorities. Laura Coristine of Tamworth, Ont., has been home with her son for two years. She’s comfortable with that choice, but would like to get back to writing. “If we had a well-developed child care system where I could be sure of finding good-quality care that we could afford, I’d leap on the opportunity,” she says.

Likewise, a strong minority of parents who use non-parental care support policies that help stay-at-home parents, including special tax breaks. As Kathleen Gormanshaw says, “Helping more parents stay home would free up daycare spots for those who don’t stay home.”

Counting the cost

Increasing taxes is seldom a political winner but, surprisingly, 40 percent of our respondents supported increased taxes to pay for child care programs. Other data show that child care is a significant political issue for parents: While poll respondents ranked it a distant second to health care (17 percent vs. 71 percent), nevertheless they placed child care ahead of the environment, higher education and defence as a priority for government spending. And nine out of 10 parents said a political party’s stand on child care influences their vote, with 21 percent saying it strongly influences or determines their vote.