Since 1991, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has invested over 200 million dollars to examine the effects of day care on children. They have followed over 1,300 children from infancy through various child-care settings (home with mother, home with another relative, home with nanny, or at day care) and into elementary school. The results have been released and the mainstream media has grabbed on to sound bites such as "poor behavior is linked to time in daycare" and "daycare kids have problems in later life." Just what every working mother wants to hear, right?
Newspaper and magazine articles like this frustrate me for a number of reasons including:
- They rarely report on the entire study - instead they pump out sensationalized sound bites designed to attract and shock readers. Critical details about study methodology, the development of variables and measures, and the full context of any outcomes/findings are not readily available for public consumption.
- The target audience is usually middle class families with a wealth of choice in their lives. They ignore the many families in poverty that don't have an option to think about whether one adult should stay home.
- Why is it always the mother's fault that the child is in daycare? The concept of complete maternal responsibility for child wellbeing is integrated so smoothly into most of these articles that we neglect to ask, "Where is daddy while this child was developing all these negative traits?"
Thankfully, Emily Bazelon took some time to set the record straight in The Kids are Alright: What the Latest Day Care Study Really Found. She does a nice job of providing some history of the study and gives a basic critique of the methodology. She took the time to contact the author of the study, Margaret Burchinal, PhD who stated:
"I'm not sure we communicated this, but the kids who had one to two years of daycare by age 4½—which was typical for our sample—had exactly the level of problem behavior you'd expect for kids of their age. Most people use center care for one or two years, and for those kids we're not seeing anything problematic."
There does seem to be a modest negative effect for children who go into daycare right at infancy. But before we jump to the conclusion that parents who use daycare are bad parents, there are other, more important questions we should examine. At a minimum we should ask what is the family situation that requires the child to go into daycare so quickly? Most parents I know would LOVE to be able to stay home with their newborn children for a year, but it simply isn't possible. For example, research has repeatedly shown that children whose families own a home vs. renting perform better on most measures of wellbeing. Does the family require both incomes just to own a home? So we really need to ask what are the possible negative effects of the child being at home that aren't being considered? A corollary question we need to be asking is why does one of the richest nations in the world not provide a federal parental leave program for families?
Check out Bazelon's article here and let us know what you think!