11/07/2013 10:44 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Ties That Bind: How Childcare Centers Build Social Capital

Commentators have been sounding the alarm for several years now that the Internet is making us more isolated, replacing real friendships with meaningless online followers and contributing to a long-term decline in social capital. However, many of the tools for avoiding isolation have not changed in at least a generation. They are, in fact, being used routinely by a major segment of the population: mothers of young children.

For many years, I studied the experiences of mothers whose children were enrolled in New York City childcare centers. My team and I interviewed rich and poor mothers, blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinas, extroverts and introverts and everything in between. We visited centers, participated in parent-teacher events, and fielded large-scale surveys. We found that, because of the way their centers were structured, many mothers built strong, meaningful social connections that challenged the notion that we are doomed to social isolation.

However, the mothers avoided isolation not because they were committed to building social networks -- though many of them were -- but because their centers organized parental responsibilities and commitments in ways necessary for the centers to function. These commitments were also useful, in often unintended ways, for the formation of meaningful social ties. For example, many of the centers had pedagogical commitments to expose children to nature and culture through field trips. But the adult-to-child ratio that works in a closed room is too low for public spaces where children may trip over museum artifacts or stick their hands in monkey cages. To run field trips, centers needed parent volunteers. And since even the busiest parents would do for their children what they would not do for themselves, a larger number of field trips resulted in a greater number of repeated activities where parents met others and built social networks.

In a representative survey of mothers in U.S. cities, 60% of those whose children were enrolled in childcare centers formed at least one new friendship through their child's center. Many of these relations were strong, meaningful ties that significantly reduced mothers' probability of depression and other forms of hardship. For example, low-income mothers who enrolled their children in childcare centers experienced 40% lower odds of depression than comparable mothers who did not enroll their children in centers -- even after taking into account their depression scores before the time when enrollment was possible. For non-poor mothers, the odds were more than 55% lower than those of non-enrolled mothers.

Field trips, however, were only one of many activities through which centers, to meet operational and pedagogical needs, were forced to pool the resources of the group for the functioning of the organization. Centers organized fundraisers, volunteered for spring cleanings, and repaired and repainted underused playgrounds. In so doing, centers unwittingly supported years of laboratory evidence by social psychologists suggesting that when strangers are forced to complete joint but manageable tasks they tend to form positive bonds.

In that sense, centers exemplify a much broader pattern: when everyday organizations such as schools, churches, neighborhood associations, sports clubs and others are forced to pool group resources for their survival, stronger social networks are likely to ensue. Our society has worked this way for many generations. It is for this reason that, as long as people continue to find the need to attend church, to sign up for sports teams, or to enroll their kids in daycare, they will have much of what is needed to keep the Internet from making them lonely. After all, Facebook cannot take one's kid to the zoo.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the latter of which is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. The series is being produced in conjunction with the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Inaugural Fellowship. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about Ascend at the Aspen Institute, click here.