Early childhood professionals agree that a good way to meet the needs of children is through their families, whatever the family units may be. As families change, early childhood professionals have to develop new and different ways of meeting parents’ and children’s needs. Providing for children’s needs through and within the family system makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • The family system has the primary responsibility for meeting many children’s needs. Parents are children’s first teachers, and the experience and guidance they do or do not provide shapes their children for life. It is in the family that basic values, literacy skills, and approaches to learning are set and reinforced. This is why it is important to work with families and help them get a good start on parenting.
  • Teachers frequently need to address family problems and issues before they can help children effectively. For example, working with family services agencies to help parents access adequate, affordable health care means that the whole family, including children, will be healthier.
  • Early childhood professionals can work with children and their families and benefit both. Family literacy is a good example. Helping children, their parents, and other family members learn to read and write helps the whole family. For example, the Texas Even Start Family Literacy Program provides literacy training for parents of families with newborns and children through age seven and assists families with parenting strategies in child growth and development.6

Families matter in the education and development of children. Working with parents becomes a win–win proposition for everyone. You are the key to making family-centered education work.

Working Parents

An increasing percentage of mothers with children are currently employed. In 2004, nearly 57 percent of mothers with children under age six and 73 percent of mothers with children ages six to seventeen were in the workforce.7 This creates a greater demand for early childhood programs. Unfortunately, much of child care in the United States is of poor quality. One of your professional responsibilities is to partner with parents to raise the quality of child care and to make it affordable and accessible.


Fathers are rediscovering the joys of parenting and interacting with young children. At the same time, early childhood educators have rediscovered fathers! Men are playing an active role in providing basic care, love, and nurturance to their children. Increasingly, men are more concerned about their roles as fathers and their participation in family events before, during, and after the birth of their children. Fathers want to be involved in the whole process of child rearing.

Because of the profession’s increased understanding of the importance of fathers in children’s development, there is now more research than ever before about fathers’ roles in the lives of children. For example, research indicates that:

  • When fathers are involved with the children and interact with their children, do better in school.
  • When fathers are involved with their children’s cognitive development (reading to children, helping with school work, etc.), it helps counteract the negative effects of limited family and school resources. In other words, father involvement does, to some extent, make up for poor schools, poor neighborhoods, and low socioeconomic status.
  • The positive effects of father involvement are not confined only to biological dads. When other adult males, such as adoptive fathers, grandfathers, and significant other males in the household, are involved, the same positive developmental outcomes and school-related benefits hold true.8

As you can see, helping fathers be involved with their children benefits children, families, schools, and society. The Program in Action feature illustrates how one father initiative encourages and supports father involvement with children.

Men are becoming single parents through adoption and surrogate childbearing. Also increasing in number are stay-at-home dads. Estimates of the number of fathers who stay home with their children are just over one million.9 Fathers are also receiving some of the employment benefits that have traditionally gone only to women, such as paternity leaves, flexible work schedules, and sick leave for family illness.

Single Parents

The number of one-parent families, both male and female, continues to increase. Certain ethnic groups are disproportionately represented in single-parent families. These increases are due to several factors. First, pregnancy rates are higher among lower socioeconomic groups. Second, teenage pregnancy rates in poor white, Hispanic, and African American populations are sometimes higher because of lower education levels, economic constraints, and fewer life opportunities.10 In 2004, 80 percent of single-parent families were headed by females and 20 percent were headed by males.11

The reality is that more women are having children without marrying. In fact, 35.7 percent of all births in 2004 were to unmarried women.12

Teenage Parents

Although teenage pregnancies have declined during the past several years, they still continue to be a societal problem. Each year, one out of ten, or 1.1 million, teenagers becomes pregnant. In addition: in 2004, there were 41 pregnancies for 1,000 teenagers, down from 75 pregnancies per 1,000 in 2002.

  • As a group, Latino teenagers have the highest birthrate, with 82.6 births per 1,000, up from 82.3 per 1,000 in 2003.
  • Among states, New Mexico and Mississippi have the highest birthrates, with 61 and 62 births in 1,000, respectively, to mothers fifteen to nineteen years of age.13

Concerned legislators, public policy developers, and national leaders view teenage pregnancy as a loss of potential for young mothers and their children. From an early childhood point of view, teenage pregnancies create greater demand for infant and toddler child care and for programs to help teenagers learn how to be good parents.


6. Texas Even Start Family Literacy Program, Texas Youth Commission Prevention Summary, 2004, http://www.tyc.state.tx.us/prevention/evenstart.html.

7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Families with Own Children: Employment Status of Parents by Age of Youngest Child and Family Type, 2002-2003 Annual Averages, April 2004, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/famee.t04.htm.

8. J. Barlow. Personally Involved Father Figures Enhance Kids' Learning in School, April 4, 2002, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-04/uoia-pif040202.php.

9. U.S. Census Bureau, "Table FG1: Married Couple Family Groups, by Labor Force Status of Both Spouses, and Race and Hispanic Origin of the Reference Person," 2004, http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2004/tabFG1-all.csv.

10. Northern Illinois University, Single Parent Families, 2005, http://www.cedu.niu.edu/~shernoff/djs2/april_yackley.

11.Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Table 4: Families with Own Children: Employment Status of Parents by Age of Youngest Child and Family Type, 2004-05 Annual Averages," 2006 http://www.bls.gov/news.release/famee.t04.htm.

12. National Center for Health Statistics. "Table 1: Total Births and Percentage of Births with Selected Demographic Characteristics, by Race and Hispanic Origin of Mother: United States, Final 2003 and Preliminary" 2004 http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/prelimbirth04_tables.pdf.

13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Births: Preliminary Data for 2004," National Vital Statistics Report, 54(8), December 29, 2005, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr54/nvsr54_08.pdf.