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A simple “nudge” goes a long way: The right to childcare and preschool benefits

I have previously written about the challenge of combining research and parenthood and the benefits of parental leave from my perspective as a Swedish researcher and citizen. And contributor Ashtyn Zinn described the pros and cons of being a parent-grad student in the United States. Despite different citizenships and social benefit systems, our experiences both demonstrate that being an active ECR pursuing an academic career while rearing a child is not an easy endeavor.


Amongst other things, it is easy to feel guilty while trying to achieve the delicate balance between research assignments and time spent with your family. There never seems to be enough time for either obligation. This is where a generous social welfare system can be of great importance. As the first couple of months of tumbling, unrealistic and fantastic moments settle and a normal academic work environment begins, it may be time to think of enrollment in some kind of childcare or pre-primary education. This service is beneficial for both parties, not just for the parent that needs to go back to work, but for the child as well. Children who attend preschool programs are better prepared for kindergarten than children who do not attend. Moreover, poor and disadvantaged kids often make the most gains – with benefits that seem to persist through life. This last finding is especially important, since in most OECD countries, very young children are more likely to use formal childcare and preschool services when they come from relatively advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. For example, in many OECD countries participation rates for children aged 0-to-2 increase with household income.


In a way, preschool is a mirror of society, and as it is constructed in the Nordic countries it seems to have positive effects on children, but this is dependent on high quality care. Quality preschool education is both a cost-effective educational intervention and an investment for society as a whole. This construction means that a strong welfare state with high public spending on early childhood education and care per child makes it easier for parents to go back to work without having to use family and friends as babysitters, because they cannot afford preschool. And as is the case with paid parental leave, and especially gender equality and paid father-specific leave, the right to and use of childcare and pre-primary education services by children under school age differ across OECD countries. Unfortunately, there are huge differences between countries when it comes to public expenditure on childcare and pre-primary education and total public expenditure on early childhood. While OECD countries spend on average just over 0.7% of GDP on early childhood education and care, with the Nordic countries reaching as high as 1.6% of GDP in Sweden and 1.8% in Iceland, it is less than 0.5% of GDP in the United States.


This kind of spending sends an important signal that children are valuable, and that there are support systems in place to help parents out and make it easier to balance an academic career with a family. Hence, these governmental “nudges” are important to society as a whole. Hopefully, last week’s Nobel Prize to the “nudge economist” Richard Thaler will put a spotlight on these important societal interventions. Thaler demonstrated how nudging can be an effective way to promote a certain behavior. In 2008, he and Cass Sunstein wrote the book “Nudge,” emphasizing the massive potential of seemingly small interventions that steer people in particular directions without being mandatory, hence allowing freedom of choice. Despite fear of manipulation, most citizens’ welcome nudges that help them live better lives.


Early career researchers who are considering parenthood or who are preparing for a child need to be aware of the challenges that most likely await them. But they should at least not be constrained in their decision to start a family or take parental leave for financial reasons or the risk of killing one’s academic career. Both parents, academics or not, and their children, are too valuable for that.


Featured Image: Swedish preschool. The image belongs to the flickr account of the Socialdemokraterna (Swedish Social Democratic Party) of Sweden) and is used under a Creative Commons CC license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Alison Gopnik (July 30, 2016). What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages. The New York Times

Andreas Vilhelmsson (August 17, 2016). The benefit of being a parent: why parental leave is more than a perk. It’s a necessity. PLOS ECR Community

Andreas Vilhelmsson (March 2, 2017). Science and Parenting: The challenge of combining research and family as an ECR. PLOS ECR Community

Ashtyn Zinn (March 17, 2017). Pursuing a Ph.D. as a Parent: How to Survive. PLOS ECR Community

Cass Sunstein (October 11, 2017). Do people like government ‘nudges’? Study says: Yes. The Conversation

Claudio Sanchez (May 3, 2017). Pre-K: Decades Worth Of Studies, One Strong Message.

Elissa Nadworny (November 17, 2016). A Lesson For Preschools: When It’s Done Right, The Benefits Last.

Jay L. Zagorsky (October 9, 2017). Economist who helped behavioral ‘nudges’ go mainstream wins Nobel. The Conversation

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Randye Hoder (October 17, 2013). Quality Preschool Is the ‘Most Cost-Effective’ Educational Intervention. The New York Times

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Robert Bauchmüller R, Mette Gortz M, Astrid Würz Rasmussen (2014). Long-run benefits from universal high-quality preschooling. Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Stephanie Land (January 6, 2016). What do you do when you can’t afford childcare? You get creative. The Washington Post.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (October 9, 2017). Press Release: The Prize in Economic Sciences 2017.


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