In What Children Need, Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, outlines years worth of research into children’s needs at different ages, and reviews the evidence on how children are faring.

She makes painfully clear that many of these needs are not being met. For example, 75 percent of day care centers for infants and toddlers have been rated as being of “fair” or “poor” quality. Similarly, many 6- to 12-year-olds do not have any access to high quality afterschool programs.

Waldfogel notes that little research has been done on the effects of early paternal employment. But she does find short-lived behavioral problems in young children whose mothers work full-time, which indicates that many aren’t getting the sensitive, responsive care they need as infants. “The research clearly suggests,” writes Waldfogel, “that at least some children would be better off if their parents could spend more time at home in the first year of life, either by delaying their return to work or by returning to work part-time.” Rather than blame mothers for going to work (as many commentators do), Waldfogel recommends policies that would enable parents of either sex to stay at home in the first year, should they want to—and that would improve the quality of non-parental childcare, should they not.

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Waldfogel offers three principles for evaluating policies meant to improve children’s welfare: respecting parent’s own choices, promoting high standards for quality, and supporting parental employment. In this way, she gives readers a solid sense of the gaps between what children need and what they are getting, as well as a blueprint for what public policy can and should do to provide for those needs. Waldfogel’s final chapter, “Where do we go from here?” is a compelling call to action for us as a society to invest more wisely in social programs that will benefit our children today—and the rest of us tomorrow.

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