Child Care

Amy Harris-Solomon

Kerstin Holmlund

Geraldine Youcha


The phrase child care is a broad term used to describe any number of arrangements or settings in which the primary responsibility is caring for a young child. There are as many different settings as there are definitions of quality in child care. The number of young children under the age of five who were cared for a portion of their day by adults other than the custodial parents increased dramatically from the early 1980s to the early 2000s largely because of the increase in the number of mothers who had joined the workforce. According to the 2002 Quality Counts survey conducted by Education Week newspaper, approximately six out of every ten children, or 11.9 million children, ages five and younger were being jointly cared for by parents and early childhood educators, other child-care providers, relatives, or others.

While many parents may prefer to stay home with their infants or young children, this is not a financial option for most. Whether by choice or necessity, the majority of mothers are now working. Approximately one out of four young children are in a single parent home. Parents are forced to make choices for their children, and all too often choices are driven by the financial resources of the family, the availability or location of child care, hours of operation, or other factors not necessarily associated with either quality of care or parent's preference for care. In addition to paid care both in and out of the home, many families rely on the assistance of family members, older siblings, neighbors, or friends to help care for their young children.

There are several types of child care available to families of young children. In-home care is one type of care families choose that allows the child or children to remain in their home environment. In this model of care the provider either comes to the home or lives part-or full-time in the child's home with the family. Frequently a relative is the person providing the care, and in this situation it is not required that a child-care license be obtained. In-home day care is one of the only unregulated forms of child care in existence today. Other forms of child care, such as family day homes, center care, and corporate child-care centers, have become highly regulated systems with states determining how programs are evaluated and monitored and by whom.

Historical View of In-Home Child Care

Mothers have not always had the primary role of caring for their children in their home. Over the years children have been cared for at home by a variety of caregivers including, but not limited to, servants, slaves, wet nurses, and mammies. Even in recent history the more modern views of mothers staying at home to care for the children while the fathers work was largely a myth. Many homes of middle income or above continued to have black domestic servants as late as the 1950s.

Society's views on childhood have changed over the years as well, making it difficult to compare and contrast care provided in the home. In today's society children are cared for at least until they reach the legal adult age of twenty-one, sometimes even beyond that while they attend college or graduate school and get settled into a career. Dating back to the colonial times some children worked in the fields as early as age seven. Their childhood ended at this time, and they began to take on adult-like responsibilities of APPRENTICE-SHIPS, working in the home or in the fields. Wealthier families could pay for their children to study according to their inclinations, whereas children who came from poor environments had little say in where they went. Regardless of whether a parent paid for their child to go study with someone or a child was sold into an apprenticeship, the overall responsibility for their care at that time was with the caregiver or master. There was little formal schooling for young children outside of the home, therefore the work they learned through their apprenticeships was critical for their future livelihood.

Servants and Slaves

According to Geraldine Youcha, author of the 1995 book Minding the Children, it is hard to detail accurately what the day-to-day child-care arrangements were like in the United States during the days of SLAVERY and the colonial period. The slave mother was not expected to take care of her children, as she was required to work in the fields or on the plantation. Children were the property of the plantation owners, and many of the children of slaves were thought to have been fathered by the masters. Children of slaves were sometimes cared for by the wife of the plantation owner, older slave children, or older slaves, or were left to fend for themselves during the long day when the mother was working. Those children who were born to slaves became slaves themselves.

Some black mothers became what were termed mammies. These women cared for the white children on the plantation and were in charge of many household domestic matters. These women upheld the high standards of the family and enforced the values and beliefs of the family with the children. The mammy's duty of caring for the children and the home is similar to the current role of the day nanny, with a major difference being that the mammies sometimes served as wet nurses to the white infants as well.

Domestic service was a common occupation for young girls during the nineteenth century. The number of servants a household had was generally related to the family's income.

Those who had more income had more servants and a wider variety of servants. The servants who took care of young children were considered lower servants, and these included the nursemaids and children's maids.

The Impact of Industrialization

For many urban families, the Industrial Revolution raised new issues regarding child care in the home. Most obviously, some families depended on work by mothers as well as fathers outside the home, which greatly complicated child care. Most mothers, even in the working class, ceased outside work upon marriage or the birth of the first child, but this was not always possible. Children were often cared for by other relatives. The number of grandmothers living with younger kin increased, in part because of the need for child care.

The spread of educational requirements also changed child-care patterns. Schools provided care for children, reducing the focus on the home after infancy. But schools also removed SIBLINGS who might help with child care in the home–though some groups tried to keep girls out of school in part because of their child-care potential. Falling birth-rates, by the later nineteenth century, also reduced siblings as a source of in-home care.

In the twentieth century, some of these arrangements continued, although the emphasis on a single wage-earner household by labor unions and other social policies allowed a period in which women most frequently took care of their own children, at least at times when their husbands were fully employed. During World War II (1939–1945), when women with young children took many jobs associated with war industries, employers and even the federal government sometimes provided child-care facilities.

Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Options for In-Home Child Care

After the 1970s, as women moved strongly into the labor force, families with low to moderate income levels often chose in-home care with grandparents caring for multiple children of varying ages at one time. Higher income families had the added option of hiring an au pair or a nanny to provide in-home care. While there are no licensing requirements for being an au pair or a nanny, there are interview processes and agencies that can assist with the hiring of these types of child-care workers.

An au pair is a foreign national living in a country specifically to experience life in that country. According to the American Institute of Foreign Policy, a legal au pair is a person who has contracted to come to the United States from a foreign country for a set amount of time, often one year. The term au pair means "equal" or "on par." An au pair lives with a family, receives room and board in exchange for child-care or baby-sitting services. The au pair may or may not be a person with any background in child development.

Nannies also provide child care in the family home, generally as live-ins. Typically these people provide more than routine child care, as they often assist in the daily routines of running a household–running errands, shopping, doing laundry, fixing meals, cleaning house, and performing other duties. The term nanny comes from the term used to describe a woman who lived with a wealthy British family and cared for the children. Nannies in British families were strictly to provide child care, as other servants took care of routine household chores. Nannies in the United States are generally young women, are often illegal immigrants, and typically have simple household responsibilities in addition to the primary role of caring for the children. The majority of larger cities in the United States have agencies that assist families in locating nanny care that meets their particular needs. Nanny care, like other types of in-home care, has recently been challenged by the growth in center care and other forms of out-of-home child care that are now available.

A growing number of GRANDPARENTS are taking care of their young grandchildren. Data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census from 2002 indicated that grandparents were taking care of approximately 21 percent of all preschoolers who were in some type of child-care arrangement. This type of care may provide more economic advantage for the family because there may be minimal or no cost associated with it. The grandparent provides an emotional connection for the child and is in the position to support the values of the family, provide enriching family history, share stories, and pass traditions down from one generation to the next.

Families are also becoming more creative in their work schedules, with fathers and mothers often splitting their days so they work alternate shifts in order to continue caring for their children in the home. This dependence on family members continues a long tradition of assistance from among kin and children. If the mother works during the day, the father becomes the primary caregiver in the home, and the roles are reversed once the mother returns home from work, with the father working an alternate shift.

BABY-SITTERS differ somewhat in their role as in-home caregivers. Often a baby-sitter provides short-term care for a specified number of hours and is not the primary caregiver outside of those specified hours or days. Many are still students who work part-time. They may be one of many babysitters a family calls on, and often their care depends on their own activities, school schedules, and time. Their influence on children can nevertheless be significant. Baby-sitters can range in age from a young TEENAGER to an elderly acquaintance, and their skills and experiences are as varied as their ages. There are baby-sitting courses available through local agencies such as the Red Cross, the YMCA, local colleges, and other youth or civic organizations.

The care of the child or children is dependent on the provider in much the same way as that of a parent. There are no overall standards related to fee structure, roles, and responsibilities especially in the case of relative caregivers. Payment for services is dependent on such factors as whether the person providing care is also receiving room and board, whether the person is a family member doing child care as a favor or as a family obligation, and what other benefits the caregiver is receiving. Commercial in-home care requires licensing if more than one family of children is being cared for. But some families create cooperative care arrangements with an exchange of services in a given rotation.


Berry, Mary Francis. 1993. The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother. Harmonds-worth, UK: Penguin.

Bredekamp, Sue, ed. 1987. Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age Eight, expanded ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Cooper, Sonja. 1999. Child Care: A Parent's Guide. New York: Checkmark Books.

Ehrich, Michelle. 1999. The Anxious Parent's Guide to Quality Child-care. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Fein, Greta, and Alison Clarke-Stewart. 1973. Day Care in Context. New York: Wiley.

Gardner, Marilyn. 2002. "Meet the Nanny–'Granny'." Christian Science Monitor August 1. Also available from

Helburn, Suzanne, and Barbara Bergmann. 2002. America's Child Care Problem: The Way Out. New York: Palgrave Publishing.

Lally, J. Ronald, Abbey Griffin, Emily Fenichel, et al. 1995. Caring for Infants and Toddlers in Groups: Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

National Research Council. 1990. Who Cares for America's Children? Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Peisner-Feinberg, Ellen S., Margaret R. Burchinal, Richard M. Clifford, et al. 1999. The Children of the Cost, Quality, and Outcomes Study Go to School: Executive Summary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.

Quality Counts 2002 Executive Summary. 2002. "In Early Childhood Education Care: Quality Counts." Education Week 17: 8–9.

Youcha, Geraldine. 1995. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner.


Carnegie Corporation of New York. 1994. "The Quiet Crisis." Available from



Preschools are an inherent aspect of welfare policies in many countries, but from time immemorial the upbringing of children of preschool age has been deemed a duty for the family. The formation of child-care strategies has been influenced by the social position of men and women, as well as societal value judgements, norms, and regulations. Any history of child care services should, therefore, consider the varying social situations of which it has been a part. The history of child care varies as well according to the social structures in different countries. Nevertheless, two distinct paths of development can be traced. The first has a social focus (care) and is linked to charity, while the second emphasizes pedagogical activities (education). The differences between these two types of institutions are still evident in the early twenty-first century.

Child Care Becomes an Issue for Poor Relief

Society faced a radical change as it underwent the transition from an agricultural to an industrialized capitalist society during the 1800s, and this affected people's living conditions. Wage earning became common and production was moved from the homestead to factories and workshops. This, in turn, created a need for child care on the part of working parents. Many children were left to look after themselves or each other because of a lack of organized child care. According to accounts beginning in the early 1800s, social unrest was an established factor in the social fabric of countries such as Germany, France, England, Sweden, and the United States. Women were actively involved in finding solutions for the problems society faced, and this also affected the social scene.

In the public debate on social problems, the working class and their families were the prime target. The wealthier classes agreed that the prevalence of street children was a central problem. Private initiatives, associations, and authorities did their best to solve these SOCIAL WELFARE problems. In England, for example, the Infant School Society was started in 1821; in Germany the KINDERGARTEN movement developed;in the United States the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY was established in 1850; and in Sweden members of the bourgeoisie organized themselves to establish infant schools, asylums, and crèches.

Child Care for the Workers' Children

During the 1800s, in many parts of Europe and the United States, there emerged institutions whose goal was providing care for workers' children. These went under different names, including child crib, crèche, cradle-school, infant school, and workhouse, but had similar ambitions, including training and reform for young offenders and activities to keep children out of trouble in their free time.

The infant school. Robert Owen was known as the creator of infant schools, which started in 1816 in Scotland. The infant school was designed as a disciplinary measure for street children, and looked after children until the age when the compulsory education system could take over. They spread rapidly throughout Europe and the United States, where people committed to social change tried to incorporate them into their respective social systems. These schools were supposed to help solve urban problems. In England, infant schools were viewed as an ideal means of dealing with the vicious effects of industrialization. Infant schooling took a different turn in the United States. During the 1830s and 1840s an internal division arose within the movement, resulting in its decline. In France, Johann Friedrich Oberlin had already established schools for infants at the end of the 1700s, based on a social welfare perspective. The first French infant school was opened in 1828, and was eventually incorporated into the French école maternelle.

The workhouse. For the poor and their children throughout Europe and the United States, there was always the alternative of the workhouse. These institutions were established at various times in different countries, depending largely on when industrialization emerged there. In England, this occurred at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s. In the United States it took place during the first half of the nineteenth century, and in Sweden it did not occur until the second half of the same century. It was assumed that children in workhouses could be isolated from the unsuitable influence of their impoverished parents. The children were to be provided with moral upbringing, a simple form of education, and above all, they were to be put to work. By working, they would learn to take responsibility for their own upkeep. Critics of these institutions have seen their activities as a means of class control.

The crèche. In France, Firmin Marbeau established a crèche in 1844 as an alternative to the inadequate care provided by unaware babysitters. In 1846 he published a work entitled Cradle schools, or the means of lessening the misery of the people by increasing the population and was rewarded with the Monthyon prize by the French Academy. The French crèche became a model and spread rapidly to Scandinavia, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain, Austria, China, and the United States. Its advocates claimed they produced better results than providing financial assistance to individual parents. But critics stated that those who were in favor of letting society take responsibility for impoverished children were, in fact, also benignly accepting the licentious behavior that was thought to be the underlying cause of poverty.

The role of the crèche, also called nursery or cradle school, was to look after the children of working mothers. The crèche was a full-day institution for the supervision of children of poor parents where the mother had to go out to work, either because she was a single parent or because she had to contribute to the livelihood of the family The children were to be provided with nutritious food, good care, and sound moral training. From the beginning they were run under private management, through an association, or supported by local authorities, church boards, and poor relief bodies. The emphasis in the crèche was on the day-to-day supervision and care of children. Very simple materials were used for this and often the groups were large and the buildings unsanitary. The staff of the crèches consisted of poorly paid untrained working-class women. But upper-class men and women, sitting on their committees, carried out an extensive and sometimes painstaking supervision of the staff and activities provided.

A Kindergarten with an Educational Aim

The kindergartens were started by private initiative and with other motives than those of the infant schools, workhouses, and crèches. The first kindergarten was founded in Germany 1837 and emanated from the pedagogy and philosophy of FRIEDRICH FROEBEL. Froebel was inspired by JEAN-JACQUES

ROUSSEAU and JOHANN PESTALOZZI. He did not believe in punishment as a force for upbringing and described the child as a plant in need of nourishment, light, and care. The term kindergarten (German for "children" and "garden") can be seen as a symbol of his main ideas. Its activities spread to many countries due to Froebel's writings and, above all, though the efforts of middle-class women. The growth of the kindergarten went hand-in-hand with the needs of bourgeois women to find an opportunity to establish a profession and career. For example, Margarethe Meyer and Elisabeth Peabody pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States in the 1850s; and Bertha Meyer, Margarethe's sister, went to England and continued the kindergarten movement there. From the middle of the 1800s onward, kindergartens were adopted all over Europe. A number of Swedish kindergarten pioneers qualified as teachers at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Haus in Berlin and on finishing their training returned to Sweden where, on a private basis, they established kindergartens, institutions for staff training (at the end of the 1800s), and a few years later, their own journal. The female pioneers within the kindergarten movement were good examples of how successfully the ideal of maternity could be combined with an interest in preschool pedagogics.

In the kindergarten the focus was on education. The staff were trained teachers or monitors, whose methods and materials constituted a part of their educational view. The activities of the kindergarten were restricted to a few hours every day. Many different interests had a stake in the kindergartens. They were financed by private individuals, companies, churches, immigrant societies, foundations, and municipalities. The kindergarten movement itself had internal contradictions. One issue was the question of which children would have access to the kindergartens. Some thought they should only be available to upper-class children, but most upper-class mothers were housewives and did not require child care. Representatives of the public kindergartens expressed the view that these institutions should be open to children from all walks of society, in order to reconcile class differences. In the United States so-called charity kindergartens were established. The first charity kindergarten was opened in St. Louis by Susan E. Blow during the winter of 1872–1873. Other women followed her example and it was not long before charity kindergartens were found in many of the towns and cities of the country.


Organized child care has focused its activities either on care or education. This dichotomy has reflected the institutional needs of different groups within society, either based on child care for working parents or the child's educational process. Children have been treated differently within these dichotomous infant institutions, and the division has been an obstacle to providing an integrated program of care and education for young children. Still, in the majority of European countries and in the United States, the preschool is integrated into the school system and provides an important role in the education, upbringing, and care of children.

In the twentieth century, most traditional forms of child care have continued to serve working mothers, but the ideas underlying the workhouse or crèche have largely disappeared. In the first half of the century, they were replaced by mothers' pensions, which allowed poor women to remain at home with their children, or by family subsidies. Since the 1970s, as more middle-class women have gone into the workplace, out-of-home child care has largely been left up to private business initiatives in the United States, while it is both provided by the state and closely supervised in most European countries.

See also: Nursery Schools.


Allen, Ann Taylor. 1991. Feminism and Motherhood in Germany 1800–1914. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Barnard, Henry. 1884. Kindergarten and Child Culture Papers: Froebel's Kindergarten, with Suggestions on Principles and Methods of Child Culture in Different Countries, Republished from the American Journal of Education. Hartford, CT: Office of Barnard's American Journal of Education.

Bloch, Marianne N. 1987. "Becoming Scientific and Professional: An Historical Perspective on the Aims and Effects of Early Education." In The Formation of the School Subjects, ed. Tom Popkewitz. New York: Falmer Press.

Brannen, Julia, and Peter Moss, eds. 2003. Rethinking Children's Care. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Crowther, Margaret A. 1981. The Workhouse System 1834–1929: The History of an English Social Institution. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

David, Miriam. 1980. The State, the Family, and Education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Duchatel, Tanneguy, and Francois Marc Louis Naville. 1842. Fattigvarden i alla dess riktningar sasom Statsanstalt och Privatinrättning samt dess nuvarande tillstand i civiliserade stater inom och utom Europa, svensk översättning (Poor relief in all its forms, from government to private institutions; its present state in civilized country within and outside of Europe, Swedish translation). Stockholm, Sweden: Norstedt and Söner.

Hareven, Tamara K., ed. 1977. Family and Kin in Urban Communities, 1730–1930. New York: New Viewpoint.

Holmlund, Kerstin. 1996. "Lat barnen komma till oss: Förskollärarna och kampen om smabarnsinstitutionerna"(Let the children come to us: Preschool teachers and their struggle for the child-care institutions). Ph.D. diss, Umea Pedagogiska institutionen.

Holmlund, Kerstin. 1999. "Cribs for the Poor and Kindergartens for the Rich: Two Directions for Early Childhood Institutions in Sweden, 1854–1930." History of Education 28, no. 2: 143–155.

Holmlund, Kerstin. 2000. "Don't Ask for Too Much! Swedish Pre-school Teachers, the State, and the Union, 1906–1965." Historyof Education Review 29, no. 1: 48–64.

Klaus, Alisa. 1993. Every Child a Lion. The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890–1920. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Michel, Sonya, and Rianne Mahon, eds. 2002. Child Care Policy at the Crossroads: Gender and Welfare State Restructuring. New York: Routledge.

Moberg, Ellen. 1947. "Barnträdgardens uppkomst och dess utveckling i Sverige" (The rise and development of the kindergarten in Sweden). In Barnträdga rden, ed. Maria Moberg, Stina Sandels. Stockholm, Sweden: Natur och Kultur.

O'Connor, Sorca M. 1995. "Mothering in Public: The Division of Organized Child Care in the Kindergarten and Day Nursery, St. Louis, 1886–1920." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 10: 63–80.



A look at child care in the United States today is a look back at the past. It has all been tried before, and the systems society has tended to support are the ones that have met its needs. These systems have been rejected and replaced by others that fit the ethos of a particular time, then resurrected in slightly different form. Group care away from home, day care, FOSTER CARE, the schools as BABY-SITTERS, and nanny care have all had previous incarnations, and twenty-first century debates about them are echoes of the heated discussions of earlier times. There is a long legacy of shared motherhood, with more than one mother in the center of the picture; there is also a little-known tradition of men as nurturers.

The Apprenticeship System

Colonial APPRENTICESHIP, imported from England, was to a large extent male child care. Designed to train adolescent boys in trades such as carpentry and printing and girls in housewifery, it was, for the poor, an early form of foster care. More than half the eleven hundred poor apprentices in Boston between 1734 and 1805 were five to nine years old. The master was responsible for children barely out of toddlerhood as well as those in their teens, and he served as "father" until the children were old enough to be on their own– usually twenty-one for boys and sixteen to eighteen for girls, or until they were married. Apprenticeship in the early teens was more common in Europe where up to a third of all adolescents were apprenticed in rural or craft households–in a combination of child care with service and training. In the United States the system began a slow decline with the American Revolution and with growing industrialization, and by the Civil War (1861–1865) it persisted only in pockets here and there.


While apprenticeship flourished and faded, SLAVERY, that "peculiar institution," evolved its own innovative child-care practices. To free able-bodied women to work in the fields, most slave children were cared for, usually in groups, by other slaves (typically those too old to work). Sometimes the group care was day care that foreshadows more contemporary patterns; sometimes it was a system anticipating the communal child rearing of the Israeli kibbutz, with children living in a separate house. Infants were usually nursed by their mothers or by another slave. But there were instances in which the mistress acted as wet nurse to free the mother to return to more productive labor.

As for the white children on the plantation, the fabled Mammy of Gone with the Wind fame often served both as wet nurse and then dry nurse of the white master's child. But she existed for the most part only on large plantations. Many white children were cared for by black children hardly older than they were.

Nineteenth-Century Developments

A contagion of reform swept through the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, challenging the sanctity of the cult of motherhood. This generated a few, relatively small experiments in child care. Utopian communities, dedicated to the idea that the road to a perfect world would be paved with perfect children, included the celibate Shakers who provided what were essentially ORPHANAGES for neglected and dependent children and the controversial Oneida Community in upstate New York in which everything–human beings as well as property–was shared. Both groups cared round the clock for children who came to or, in the case of Oneida, were born into the community. The Shaker communities lasted longer than any others–from 1776 to remnants of one in the early 2000s. The Oneida Community, started by the visionary John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) in 1848, lasted forty years and included as many as three hundred men, women, and children. Children were reared together from the time they were weaned (at one point this was as early as seven months) and were the responsibility of the community, not their parents. This horrified outside society but freed women for work, education, and love of both men and God.

In the midst of the immigrant slums of the late nineteenth century, science, philanthropy, social conscience, and practicality coalesced in the settlement house–a "settlement" of do-gooders. JANE ADDAMS (1860–1935) was a key figure in the movement. She cofounded Hull-House, which opened in Chicago in 1889 and soon became the most famous and the most influential example.

The day nurseries at the settlement houses provided for young children from the time a mother went to work until she came back at night. There was drop-off care for a few hours, care for sick children, and twenty-four-hour care, if necessary. Children were fed hot, nutritious meals. Babies as young as two weeks old were accepted if there was real need, parents were involved as teaching assistants and in parent education classes, and caretakers made home visits to provide continuity in the child's life. These day nurseries, supported by private contributions, were criticized as the condescending meddling of well-meaning women. But they now seem to have been an effective, humane way to deal with the children of working mothers.

The KINDERGARTEN arose initially in Germany as a way of providing early education and also, particularly for the lower classes, as improved child care. Spreading to the United States, the idea of the kindergarten, where very young children could be cared for by trained professionals, fit neatly with the theoretical concepts of the influential pioneering American psychologist G. STANLEY HALL (1844–1924). Child rearing, Hall believed, was a science and too difficult to be left to bumbling mothers.

The kindergarten (run by private, charitable organizations at first, and then picked up by the public schools) was seized on as a way of assimilating the children of immigrants now crowding the American shores. By 1862 the word had come into the language, and the number of kindergartens grew along with the number of immigrants. Society had once again approved what it needed to care for its children. And as had happened with day nurseries, strategies to improve the lives of the poor trickled up to the rich and middle class. By 1920, about 10 percent of U.S. children, poor or not, attended kindergartens. For many mothers, child care for at least half the day could be assured.

Various ethnic groups brought with them the conviction that the extended family must care for its own children. Children who were ORPHANS or half orphans, or those in families in which there were simply too many children for their parents to handle, were parceled out to relatives. The ravages of death and desertion made shared mothering necessary. Many nineteenth-century families had an older relative, most commonly a grandmother, living in, mainly for assistance in child care. This residential pattern began to diminish starting in the 1920s.

In black families, too, the extended family played a large role in caring for children of unmarried mothers and women who had to work, but this safety net extended beyond blood relatives to "fictive kin," neighbors or close female friends of the mother, or people who had come into the family constellation so long ago that no one remembered when or why. Such care lasted for a few hours, a week, or the rest of the child's life.

Even in the early twenty-first century, 50 percent of the children whose working mothers had less than a high school education were cared for by relatives. Relatives cared for 30 percent of the children of mothers with a high school diploma and 16 percent of those whose mothers had graduated from college. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of fathers staying home and caring for children increased dramatically since the 1990s.

By the mid-nineteenth century, ORPHANAGES, caring for large groups of children, were widely hailed as ideal institutions. They were established for the best of reasons to nurture children in the worst of times. Industrialization and immigration had cut families off from earlier supports. Epidemic disease and later the carnage of the Civil War (1861–1865) made it urgent to find a new way to care for children set adrift.

Historians have recently emphasized the extent to which working-class families often used orphanages as places to put children temporarily, when the family was financially destitute or disrupted by illness, with the parents maintaining contact with the children and later taking them back. For other children, orphanages sometimes doubled as child-placement schemes, with the goal of placing children in the homes of other families. Many authorities supported this system as the best way to provide a home environment and work training for children of the poor. It was often exploited, however, by foster parents themselves, who sought cheap labor.

A noninstitutional method to deal with orphans–the ORPHAN TRAINS–focused on individuals. In the seventy-five years between 1854 and 1929 a mass displacement rivaled only by the Children's Crusade of the thirteenth century transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, neglected, and abandoned children from the crowded, filthy streets of New York and other eastern cities to the salubrious air of the midwestern countryside. Most of them were in the care of the NEW YORK CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY, whosefounder, CHARLES LORING BRACE (1826–1890), was determined to rescue "uncared for waifs before the evil environment has done its deadly work." Although the older children were essentially indentured servants, the farm families sometimes legally adopted the younger ones they took in. The system was criticized for tearing children from their homes or from familiar streets and for turning Catholics into Protestants in the Midwest. Yet many children prospered in homes far from home.

Trends in the Twentieth Century

The very rich, particularly before and after World War I (1914–1918), imported nannies to care for their children within the home. Preferably English or French or German and bringing with her an overlay of aristocracy on top of her own working-class origins, Nanny (or Mademoiselle or Fraulein) sometimes completely replaced parents, who made only brief state appearances. Some nannies were horrors– others lifesavers. Middle-class families, meanwhile, often gained some child care from day servants, though their quality was widely distrusted.

During the mid- and late twentieth century, with mothers with young children entering the labor force in increasing numbers, the nanny became a fixture in middle- and upper-middle-class families. The word has now come to be a generic term for a full-time or part-time home-based child-care worker. In 2001, 11 percent of young children of college-educated working mothers were cared for by nannies or baby-sitters; the percentage drops to 5 for mothers with a high school education.

Between the two world wars, rich and not-so-rich parents who could not or chose not to care for their children themselves found another solution. Elite boarding schools took the boys (and sometimes the girls) and helped their parents avoid many of the upheavals of ADOLESCENCE. The schools themselves, and the concept of adolescence as a separate period of life, were both born in the nineteenth century. Throughout this period, convents and other religious institutions continued to care for young children as they had done for centuries.

In the wider culture, after 1909 when the first WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE ONHILDREN concluded, "The carefully selected foster home is for the normal child the best substitute for the natural home," foster family care came to be seen as ideal in place of the orphanage. SOCIETIES FORTHE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TOHILDREN (based on the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and sometimes combined with it) pioneered in investigating CHILD ABUSE and removing children from unsuitable homes starting in 1874. Slowly the focus began to shift to foster care or preserving the family rather than removing the child.

With the GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s, the focus shifted again. Faced with massive unemployment, the Works Progress Administration began a system of day nurseries meant to give jobs to out-of-work teachers, nutritionists, nurses, and custodians, among others. The program, available only to the poor, was the first comprehensive support for and funding of child care by the federal government. When those make-work day-care centers were discontinued on March 1, 1943, most of them became Lanham Act centers for the children of mothers working in vitally important warrelated industries. For the first time day care lost the stigma of "for the poor or unwanted only."

Under the Lanham Act, approximately 1.6 million American children were in federally funded NURSERY SCHOOLS and day care centers by July 1945, the peak of the war effort. The centers often operated in schools or on the grounds of factories, providing day care, before- and after-school care, and vacation coverage. A total of about six hundred thousand different children received care through Lanham Act funds during the two and a half years of the program's existence. More young children were cared for away from their mothers than ever before. The centers closed six months after the war ended when women were told firmly to go back home and make room for returning servicemen.

The success of the Lanham Act centers was largely forgotten in the 1950s as women were viewed as the only effective nurturing figures. After the 1960s, however, increasing numbers of American women with young children were ignoring the conventional wisdom as they chose to work or were forced by circumstances to do so. In 2002, 72 percent of women with children under eighteen years of age were in the labor force. Day-care centers spread haltingly in the United States in response to these patterns, with some state-run institutions for the urban poor and often-expensive private centers for others.

In other cultures day care is built permanently into the national SOCIAL WELFARE system. In France, nearly 90 percent of children aged three to five are served in a program that blends education, health care, and child care in all-day centers and licensed private care homes, largely funded with tax dollars. The Israeli government provides kindergarten for all five-year-olds, and 50 percent of all three-to four-year-olds are in public child care. In China almost all children, starting at the age of fifty-six days, have government child care available, and five-day-a-week boarding care is offered in the large cities.

The widespread conviction that only a mother (preferably perfect) or her exemplary substitute can provide what a child needs to thrive is not supported by a body of respected research. Children have been helped and hurt by any system, whether orphanages, foster care, communal care, nanny care, or mother care. What matters is the quality of care and the quality of caring. And in each case much depended on the age and resilience of the child. Every era has had to find its own way of caring for the children it has produced, supported by psychological understanding that is, itself, a product of that time.

See also: Placing Out.


Baltzell, E. Digby. 1964. The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cott, Nancy, and Elizabeth H. Pleck, eds. 1979. A Heritage of Her Own: Toward a New Social History of American Women. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Klaw, Spencer. 1993. Without Sin: The Life and Death of the Oneida Community. New York: Viking Penguin.

Langsam, Miriam Z. 1964. Children West: A History of the Placing-Out System of the New York Children's Aid Society. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Lerner, Gerda. 1973. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Vintage.

NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. 2001. "Nonmaternal Care and Family Factors in Early Development: An Overview of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 22, no. 5: 457–492.

Rawick, George P., ed. 1972. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, 19 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Steinfels, Margaret O'Brien. 1973. Who's Minding the Children? The History and Politics of Day Care in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Youcha, Geraldine. 1995. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner.