The day-care scare, again

If the care of anyone but mom really makes kids more aggressive, why don't researchers propose reform? And if it doesn't, why don't they stop scaring us?

Published April 21, 2001 12:32AM (EDT)

There should be a drill for mothers -- taught, perhaps, along with burping, diapering and CPR -- that prepares them for the periodic and deeply traumatic announcements of the Early Child Care Study at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

It would go something like this: As soon as the headline appears, the radio blares or the concerned neighbor or teacher or pediatrician or father-in-law brings up the latest NICHD findings about the impact of child care on children, the mother should assume the position -- eyes closed, ears plugged and singing "Jingle Bells"-- until the subject has changed.

This is not just a strategy for mothers who work, either. The findings of the Early Child Care Study occasionally attribute advantages to child care that may not be enjoyed by kids at home with their mothers. Just as unpredictability and seeming arbitrariness are keys to successful torture, so they appear to be the only constant factors of the Early Child Care Study.

Earlier this week, in preparation for a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Minneapolis, the NICHD unleashed a new one-two punch -- a sort of good news, bad news package of findings that should thoroughly confuse and possibly terrify American mothers. Stay-at-home fathers also take a hit this time.

To wit: The NICHD, in its ongoing study -- launched in 1991 -- of 1,300 children at 10 research sites around the country, found that the more time a child spent in any kind of child care away from its mother, including in the care of a father or relative, the more likely the child was to demonstrate aggressive, disobedient and/or defiant behavior -- both as a preschooler and as a kindergartner.

The quality of the care, the socioeconomic status of the parents, the sex of the child -- none of these factors changed the equation. Children who spend more than 30 hours a week in child care "scored higher on items like 'gets in lots of fights,' 'cruelty,' 'explosive behavior,' as well as 'talking too much,' 'argues a lot' and 'demands a lot of attention,'" reported Jay Belsky, a lead investigator in the study who now teaches at Birkbeck College in London.

The NICHD also announced that children in high-quality child care perform better in a range of social and academic skills related to school readiness; but that finding didn't make it into the headlines of most stories about the NICHD study.

To say that these announcements raise some questions is to be much too polite. (Aggressive tendencies acknowledged.) Here are just a few that come immediately to mind:

What is problem behavior? Does it include jumping off high places in a cape? Attempting to be first in line for juice? Pushing a kid who is attempting to pinch your backside? Is knowing how to ask for attention in a group of kids a problem? Is it possible that kids are born aggressive, defiant, raring to talk too much at the first opportunity? Is that a bad thing? Is it better to be smart and cheeky than dim and placid? And what happened to these kids after kindergarten?

And a few more: If these findings are meant to influence our choice about whether to place our child in care -- regardless of its quality -- what makes the NICHD think that we have a choice in the first place? Is it better for a mother to drop what she is doing to earn a living and head home, even if the stress of living on one income -- or no income -- is going to have an impact on her child? And what about the welfare-to-work program? Is the government flushing women from their homes at a terrible cost to their children?

Then there is the $64,000 query: What are we supposed to do with this information? Most of the researchers associated with the study acknowledge that the findings are preliminary, that they haven't been completely peer-reviewed or published in full, and they certainly aren't being accompanied by recommendations for policy. But these provisos seem rather a cop-out.

If the findings are as disturbing as they seem, why not chase them with a declaration of urgency directed toward policymakers? Where is the call to conduct more research to fully interpret the findings, to develop public policy to protect our children from harm? And if these findings are not so disturbing, if we shouldn't be frightened, would someone please make that abundantly clear?

This is not, after all, a brand-new debate. Fifteen years ago, lead investigator Jay Belsky, then a professor at Pennsylvania State University, raised the possibility that child care could be damaging to children's psychological development. His paper, "Infant Day Care: A Cause for Concern," scared the hell out of parents everywhere.

Now the director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck College, Belsky has a new paper this year: "Development Risk (Still) Associated With Early Child Care," which draws heavily on NICHD data. (He has found, among other disheartening items, that day care leads to slightly less positive interaction by fathers with their children.) Belsky told the Financial Times of London earlier this year that the data from the NICHD "convinces me there is something going on here. Ignore it at your peril."

And at a briefing about the latest NICHD findings earlier this week, Belsky took a stab at conferring some advice. "If more time in all sorts of [child care] arrangements is predicting disconcerting outcomes," he said, "then if you want to reduce the probability of those outcomes, you reduce the time in care. Extend parental leave and part-time work."

"On behalf of fathers or mothers?" Sarah Friedman, a developmental psychologist at the NICHD and a lead scientist on the study, immediately retorted. She went on to say that "the easy solution is to cut the number of hours [in child care] but that may have implications for the family that may not be beneficial for the development of the children in terms of economics."

The bottom line? "We don't know what the implications are," said Friedman. "We don't understand why we got these findings." And so, she concluded, "NICHD is not willing to get into policy recommendations."

And this is the familiar refrain, a disclaimer that leaves mothers twisting in the wind. In fact, the study apparently can't even tell us how serious its findings are. While Belsky warns of "peril" in ignoring the study, another NICHD researcher told the Associated Press on Thursday that the aggressive behaviors displayed by kids in the study "were typical of what you'd expect from a normal 4-year-old. We're not seeing that child care produces super-aggressive kids."

So should we worry, or shouldn't we? Belsky is a doomsayer who is somewhat dismissive of positive findings -- both in the NICHD and other studies -- that have indicated that good, quality child care enhances the language, math and social skills of children through kindergarten. He uses this information to speculate that we are raising a generation of "smart but nasty kids."

"Maybe the future's going to be a world of everyone out for themselves," he told the Financial Times. "Maybe putting kids in child care is a great preparation for that society. You are creating kids who will be smart, advantage-taking aggressors who will break rules and not get along."

But even Belsky cannot say why extensive child care is having this disastrous effect on children. "The why," he says, "is a mystery."

Which tells us everything or nothing. As usual.

Contacted at the child development conference where the NICHD findings are being presented, researcher Robert Pianta is sympathetic but not extremely helpful. The professor of education from the University of Virginia says: "The care of children is something in which a lot of people have a very dear investment," he said, "and so any time there are findings that pertain to that, especially findings that suggest negative effects, that certainly gets fed into that sense of people being very interested in kids."

One resists the temptation to add a defiant and disobedient "No duh!" So what is a mother to do with this information?

"The conclusions suggest that families, when they are in the circumstances of using child care for their children, should pay attention to how their child care, family and work are balanced together."

You mean the mom should head home, regardless of the financial fallout of that decision?

"Well, we are not suggesting that children be pulled out of child care and forget the income that comes from the mother or father working," he says.

And what about the conclusion that the father seems not to be an adequate replacement for the mother at home? There were so few children cared for by the fathers in the study -- fewer than 100 out of 750 -- that "you have to take the father finding in a little bit of context," says Pianta.

And were he in these circumstances? "I would be looking at my child's behavior and if I or my child's teacher felt my child was having problems adjusting, I would put more care into placing more attention on their social skills."

That's it. More wind. More twisting. And it's getting exhausting, not to mention a little infuriating. At this point, after 10 long years, America's mothers might be inclined to conclude that the NICHD is a cruel and bullying institution that is talking too much and demanding too much attention.

Certainly we are not so naive as to demand better news or upbeat conclusions -- we can take it, believe us -- but some reflection and analysis would be nice. A complete and published report would be dandy. Or how about a couple of recommendations for government policy that would create a choice for working parents? Why? Because we are mothers, and we asked nicely, that's why.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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