CAN YOUR CAREER HURT YOUR KIDS? Mommy often gets home from work too tired to talk. Daddy's almost never around. Says one expert: ''We can only guess at the damage being done to the very young.''
By Kenneth Labich REPORTER ASSOCIATE Jung Ah Pak

(FORTUNE Magazine) – BECAUSE CHILDREN are the future, America could be headed for bad bumps down the road. Some of the symptoms are familiar -- rising teenage suicides and juvenile arrest rates, average SAT scores lower than 30 years ago. But what is the disease festering beneath that disturbing surface? Says Alice A. White, a clinical social worker who has been counseling troubled children in Chicago's prosperous North Shore suburbs for nearly two decades: ''I'm seeing a lot more emptiness, a lack of ability to attach, no sense of real pleasure. I'm not sure a lot of these kids are going to be effective adults.''

Not all children, or even most of them, are suffering from such a crisis of the spirit. In fact, some trends are headed in a promising direction. For example, drug use among young people has fallen sharply since the 1970s. But a certain malaise does seem to be spreading. Far more and far earlier than ever before, kids are pressured to take drugs, have sex, deal with violence. In a world ever more competitive and complex, the path to social and economic success was never more obscure. And fewer traditional pathfinders are there to show the way. Divorce has robbed millions of kids of at least one full-time parent. With more and more women joining the work force, and many workaholic parents of both sexes, children are increasingly left in the care of others or allowed to fend for themselves. According to a University of Maryland study, in 1985 American parents spent on average just 17 hours a week with their children. This parental neglect would be less damaging if better alternatives were widely available, but that is decidedly not the case. Families that can afford individual child care often get good value, but the luxury of a compassionate, full-time, $250-a-week nanny to watch over their pride and joy is beyond the reach of most American parents. They confront a patchwork system of informal home arrangements and more structured day care centers. In far too many cases, parents with infants or toddlers cannot feel secure about the care their children get. Says Edward Zigler, a professor of child development at Yale, who has spent much of his career fighting the abuses of child care: ''We are cannibalizing children. Children are dying in this system, never mind achieving optimum development.'' For older children with no parental overseer, the prospects can be equally bleak. Studies are beginning to show that preteens and teenagers left alone after school, so-called latchkey children, may be far more prone than other kids to get involved with alcohol and illegal drugs. For some experts in the field, the answer to all this is to roll back the clock to an idyllic past. Mom, dressed in a frilly apron, is merrily stirring the stew when Dad gets home from work. Junior, an Eagle Scout, and Sally -- they call her Muffin -- greet him with radiant smiles. Everybody sits down for dinner to talk about schoolwork and Mom's canasta party. For others more in touch with the economic temper of the times -- especially the financial realities behind the rising number of working mothers -- the solution lies in improving the choices available to parents. Government initiatives to provide some financial relief may help, but corporations could make an even greater difference by focusing on the needs of employees who happen to be parents. Such big companies as IBM and Johnson & Johnson have taken the lead in dealing with employee child care problems, and many progressive corporations are discovering the benefits of greater flexibility with regard to family issues (see following story). At the same time, an array of professional child care organizations has sprung up to help big corporations meet their employees' demands. Without doubt, helping improve child care is in the best interest of business -- today's children, after all, are tomorrow's labor pool. Says Sandra Kessler Hamburg, director of education studies at the Committee for Economic Development, a New York research group that funnels corporate funds into education projects: ''We can only guess at the damage being done to very young children right now. From the perspective of American business, that is very, very disturbing. As jobs get more and more technical, the U.S. work force is less and less prepared to handle them.'' The state of America's children is a political mine field, and threading through the research entails a lot of gingerly probing as well as the occasional explosion. Much work in the field is contradictory, and many additional longer-range studies need to be done before anyone can say precisely what is happening. Moreover, any researcher who dwells on the problems of child care -- of infants in particular -- risks being labeled antiprogressive by the liberal academic establishment. If the researcher happens to be male, his motives may seem suspect. If he says babies are at risk in some child care settings, he may be accused of harboring the wish that women leave the work force and return to the kitchen. Much valid research may be totally ignored because it has been deemed politically incorrect. For example: Jay Belsky, a Penn State professor specializing in child development, set off a firestorm in 1986 with an article in Zero to Three, an influential journal that summarizes existing academic research. His conclusions point to possible risks for very small children in day care outside the home. Though he scrupulously threw in a slew of caveats and even went so far as to confess a possible bias because his own wife stayed home with their two children, Belsky came under heavy attack. Feminist researchers called his scholarship into question. Says Belsky: ''I was flabbergasted by the response. I felt like the messenger who got shot.'' Belsky's critics charged, among other things, that he had ignored studies that document some more positive results from infant day care. Since then, for example, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, found that a child's intellectual development may actually be helped during the second and third years of life if the mother works. The study, which tracked a nationwide sample of 874 children from ages 3 to 4, determined that the mental skills of infants in child care outside the home were lower than those of kids watched over by their mothers during the first year, but then picked up enough at ages 2 and 3 to balance out. Whatever the merits of his critics' assault, Belsky presents a disturbing picture of the effects on infants of nonparental child care outside the home. In a 1980 study he cited in the article, involving low-income women in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, infants in day care were disproportionately likely to avoid looking at or approaching their mothers after being separated from them for a brief period. ANOTHER STUDY, conducted in 1974, concluded that 1-year-olds in day care cried more when separated from their mothers than those reared at home; still another, in 1981, found that day care infants threw more temper tantrums. To at least some extent, the observations seem to apply across socioeconomic boundaries. A 1985 University of Illinois study of infants from affluent Chicago families showed that babies in the care of full-time nannies avoided any sort of contact with their mothers more often than those raised by moms during their first year. An infant's attachment, or lack of it, to the mother is especially crucial because it can portend later developmental problems. In the Minnesota study, toddlers who had been in day care early on displayed less enthusiasm when confronted with a challenging task. They were less likely to follow their mothers' instructions and less persistent in dealing with a difficult problem. Another study, which took a look at virtually all 2-year-olds on the island of Bermuda, found more poorly adjusted children among the early day care group regardless of race, IQ, or socioeconomic status. Researchers in Connecticut investigating 8- to 10-year-old children in 1981 found higher levels of misbehavior and greater withdrawal from the company of others among those who had been in day care as infants, no matter what the educational level of their parents. In a study of kindergarten and first-grade children in North Carolina, the early day care kids were found more likely than others to hit, kick, push, threaten, curse, and argue with their peers. What we should take away from the research, says an unrepentant Belsky, is this: ''There is an accumulating body of evidence that children who were cared for by people other than their parents for 20 or more hours per week during their first year are at increased risk of having an insecure relationship with their parents at age 1 -- and at increased risk of being more aggressive and disobedient by age 3 to 8.'' Belsky adds several ''absolutely necessary caveats'': First, the results of all these studies must be viewed in light of the added stress that many families experience when both parents work and of the fact that affordable high-quality day care is not always available. Belsky agrees with some of his academic opponents that the quality of day care matters. His second warning: The results of these studies are generalizations and do not apply to every single child. Third, he says, nobody really knows what causes underlie the findings. Research on older children who spend at least part of the day on their own is far less controversial, though no less disturbing. A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics focused on substance abuse by nearly 5,000 eighth-graders around Los Angeles and San Diego. The sample cut across a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds and was split about half and half between boys and girls. The researchers concluded that 12- and 13-year-olds who were latchkey kids, taking care of themselves for 11 or more hours a week, were about twice as likely as supervised children to smoke, drink alcohol, and use marijuana. About 31% of the latchkey kids have two or more drinks at a time; only about 17% of the others do. Asked whether they expected to get drunk in the future, 27% of the latchkey kids and 15% of the others said yes. Increasingly, isolation from parents is a problem even when the family is physically together. Beginning in infancy, children are highly attuned to their parents' moods. And when parents have little left to give to their offspring at the end of a stressful day, the kids' disappointment can be crushing. Says Eleanor Szanton, executive director of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, a nonprofit resource center in Virginia: ''What happens between parents and children during the first hour they are reunited is as important as anything that happens all day. If the mother is too exhausted to be a mother, you've got a problem.'' When children become adolescents and begin to test their wings by defying their parents' authority, stressed-out families may break down completely because no strong relationship between parents and children has developed over the years. In high-achiever families, says Chicago social worker Alice White, family life can become an ordeal where children must prove their worth to their parents in the limited time available. Conversation can be a series of ''didjas'' -- Didja ace that test, win the election, score the touchdown? What's missing is the easygoing chatter, the long, relaxed conversations that allow parents and children to know each other. White says that many of today's kids don't understand how the world works because they haven't spent enough time with their parents to understand how decisions are made, careers are pursued, personal relationships are formed. She finds herself spending more and more time acting as a surrogate mother for the seemingly privileged kids she counsels, advising them on everything from sexual issues to recipes for a small dinner party. Says White: ''The parents serve as a model of success, but the kids are afraid they won't get there because nobody has shown them how.'' JUST ABOUT EVERYONE in the child-development field agrees that all this adds up to a discouraging picture, but opinions vary wildly as to what ought to be done about it -- and by whom. For a growing band of conservative social thinkers, the answer is simple: Mothers ought to stay home. These activists, working at private foundations and conservative college faculties, rail against what they see as the permissiveness of recent decades. They save their most lethal venom for organized child care, blaming it for everything from restraining kids' free will to contributing to major outbreaks of untold diseases. One conservative researcher, Bryce Christensen of the Rockford Institute in Illinois, has likened day care to the drug Thalidomide. Day care, he writes, is ''a new threat to children that not only imperils the body, but also distorts and withers the spirit.'' Gary L. Bauer, president of a conservative Washington research outfit called the Family Research Council, is among the most visible of these social activists. Bauer, a domestic-policy adviser in the Reagan White House, believes strongly that the entry of great numbers of women into the work force has harmed America's children. He says the importance of bonding between a mother and her children became clear to him and his wife one morning several years ago when they were dropping their 2-year-old daughter at a babysitter's home. The child went immediately to the sitter, calling her ''Mommy.'' That was something of an epiphany for Bauer's wife, Carol: She quit her job as a government employment counselor soon after and has since stayed home to raise the couple's three children. Still, the dual-career trend continues. No wonder. Most American families could not afford to forfeit a second income, a fact that renders the conservatives' yearning for a simpler past quixotic at best. Real weekly earnings for workers declined 13% from 1973 to 1990. So in most cases two paychecks are a necessity. Also, about a quarter of American children -- and about half of black children -- live in single-parent homes. Those parents are nearly all women. Though some receive child support or other income, their wages are usually their financial lifeblood. About half the mothers who have been awarded child support by the courts do not get full payments regularly. From the standpoint of the national economy, a mass exodus of women from the work force would be a disaster: There simply won't be enough available males in the future. Women now make up over 45% of the labor force, and they are expected to fill about 60% of new jobs between now and the year 2000. EVEN IF a child's welfare were the only consideration, in many cases full- time motherhood might not be the best answer. Children whose mothers are frustrated and angry about staying home might be better off in a high-quality day care center. And many kids may well benefit from the socializing and group activities available in day care. A mother and child alone together all day isn't necessarily a rich environment for the child. In the end, the short supply of high-quality day care is the greatest obstacle to better prospects for America's children. Experts agree on what constitutes quality in child care -- a well-paid and well-trained staff, a high staff-child ratio, a safe and suitable physical environment. They also generally concur that if those criteria are met, most children will not just muddle through but prosper. Says Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, a nonprofit educational and advocacy organization in New York: ''Despite all the questions that have been raised, the bottom line is that if the quality is there, and the parents are comfortable with the situation, the kids are going to be fine.'' But even tracking, much less improving, child care quality is a monumental task. Something like 60% of the approximately 11 million preschool kids whose mothers work are taken care of in private homes. That can be a wonderful experience: Grandma or a warm-hearted neighbor spends the day with the wee ones baking cookies and imparting folk wisdom. Or it can be hellish. Yale's Edward Zigler speaks in horror of the home where 54 kids in the care of a 16- year-old were found strapped into car seats all day. Low pay and the lack of status associated with organized day care centers make it tough to recruit and retain qualified workers. A study by a research group called the Child Care Employee Project in Oakland revealed an alarming 41% annual turnover rate at day care operations across the U.S. One big reason: an average hourly salary of $5.35. Says Zigler: ''We pay these people less than we do zoo keepers -- and then we expect them to do wonders.'' The experts have floated various schemes to make more money available. The Bush Administration has offered $732 million in block grants to the states for child care and has also proposed increasing the modest tax credits (current maximum: $1,440) for lower-income parents using most kinds of day care. Another current idea: increase the personal exemption. If it had kept pace with inflation since 1950, it would be about $7,000 instead of $2,050. Zigler has proposed that couples be allowed to dip into their Social Security accounts for a short while when their children are young. Under his plan families would be limited to tapping the accounts for up to three years per child, and their retirement benefits would be reduced or delayed proportionately. Zigler would also limit the amount of money withdrawn to some reasonable maximum. Under all these proposals, parents -- especially women -- could more easily afford to pay for high-quality day care, scale back their work hours, or even stay at home longer with a newborn if they wished. A 1989 Cornell University study found that about two-thirds of mothers who work full time would cut their hours if they didn't need the extra income. In other surveys, even greater percentages of working mothers with infants say they would reduce their hours or stay home if money were no problem. In his recent book, Child Care Choices, Zigler presents some innovative notions about improving care for older children. He would start organized classes in the public school system beginning at age 3, and keep schools open in the afternoon and early evening for the use of kids with working parents. School libraries, gyms, music rooms, and art rooms would be available. Says Zigler: ''All you need is a traffic cop.'' The city of Los Angeles and the entire state of Hawaii have begun after-school programs along these lines. BUSINESS has a crucial role to play in helping employees who are parents cope with their responsibilities. The U.S. Congress is currently considering legislation that would guarantee 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the event of a family illness or the birth of a child. According to a study conducted by economics professors at Cornell University and the University of Connecticut, the costs of allowing such leaves for most workers is less than letting them quit and hiring permanent replacements. Companies can provide big-time relief with smaller gestures as well: making a telephone available to assembly-line workers so they can check up on their latchkey kids, say, or letting office workers slip out for a parent-teacher conference without a hassle. As the competition for good workers heats up, many companies will be forced to grapple with the problems working parents face, or risk losing desirable employees. Says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington: ''If you need workers, you will do what has to be done.'' Many corporations have already taken the plunge. IBM, among other companies, offers employees a free child-care referral service; IBM uses 250 different organizations. The company has also pledged $22 million over five years to improve the quality of day care available in the towns and cities where most of its employees live. Johnson & Johnson provides an array of goodies: one- year unpaid family care leaves, an extensive referral network, dependent care reimbursement accounts so that employees can pay child care expenses with pretax dollars, and up to $2,000 toward the cost of adoption. J&J also supports an on-site day care center at its headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The company subsidizes part of the cost, but employees using the center still pay $110 to $130 a week depending on the age of the child. Depending on the region, average charges for a preschooler range from $67 to $115 a week. Infant care can cost up to $230 a week, and the affluent few with a full-time nanny pay $200 to $600. Some smaller companies are paying attention as well. American Bankers Insurance Group, based in Miami, maintains a day care center for employees' children ages 6 weeks to 5 years. After that the child can attend a company- run private school for an additional three years. The school takes care of the child from 8 A.M. to 6:15 P.M. and keeps its doors open during school holidays and summer vacations.

The child care business is growing rapidly. Approximately 77,000 licensed child care centers now serve about four million children daily. Financially troubled Kinder-Care Learning Centers of Montgomery, Alabama, is the industry giant, with 1,257 centers around the country and revenues of $396 million a year. The runner-up is a Kansas City, Missouri, outfit called La Petite Academy Inc. It operates about 750 centers and did $201 million worth of business in 1990. ServiceMaster, the widely diversified management company based near Chicago, jumped into the field last year and now runs three centers in suburban office parks, with four more under construction. The beauty part of the business is that ServiceMaster typically gets some form of financial help from a landlord or corporate client -- reduced rent or lower occupancy costs -- and then charges market rates for its services. Parents working at companies such as Sears, Abbott Laboratories, Ameritech, and Mobil pay about $140 to $150 a week for infants and about $95 a week for 3- to 5-year-olds. ServiceMaster executives consider this a business with splendid growth prospects: They plan to open another half-dozen centers by the end of 1991 and then begin expanding beyond the Chicago area. Child-development experts admire a relatively new and growing company, Bright Horizons Children's Centers of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the innovative on-site day care it provides for major corporations including IBM, Prudential, and Dun & Bradstreet. Founded in 1986 by Linda Mason and her husband, Roger Brown, both former economic development workers in Africa, Bright Horizons now operates 38 centers up and down the East Coast. In most cases the corporate client donates space for child care in or near its office building, providing Bright Horizons with a handsome cost advantage. Fees can be steep -- up to $225 per week for infants -- but companies often subsidize the payments for employees low on the wage scale. Because the centers are close to the workplace, parents are encouraged to drop in throughout the day. Bright Horizons' teaching staff members earn up to $20,000 per year, far more than most day care centers pay, plus a full benefits package. They can pursue a defined career track and move into management ranks if they qualify. As a result, turnover runs at a relatively low 16% to 24%. Brown and Mason concede that many children might be damaged by second-rate child care, but they contend that parents rarely have anything to fear from the kind of high-quality attention their centers provide. Says Mason: ''It's very much like health care. If you can afford to pay for it, you can receive the best child care in the world in this country.'' For business, helping employees find their way through the child care thicket makes increasing sense -- and not only as a method of keeping today's work force happy. More and more companies with an eye on the future recognize the importance of early childhood development, and many are alarmed by the discouraging signals they see in the upcoming generation of workers. At BellSouth in Atlanta, for instance, only about one job applicant in ten passes a battery of exams that test learning ability; ten years ago, twice as many did. Even those who make it through the tests often require extensive training and carry heavy personal baggage: A startling 70% of BellSouth's unmarried employees support at least one child. More companies are finding that they have to help employees cope not just with their children but also with the gamut of life's vicissitudes. Says Roy Howard, BellSouth's senior vice president for corporate human resources: ''Business used to feel that you ought to leave your personal problems at home. We can no longer afford to take that view.'' The psychic welfare of workers -- and of their children -- is increasingly a legitimate management concern, and companies that ignore it risk their employees' future as well as their own.