The day-care scare, again

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

By Salon Staff
Published April 25, 2001 7:26PM (EDT)

Read the story.

I am a stay-at-home mom of an active 8-month-old, and I feel fortunate that my husband and I can get by on one income. Making the decision to not use day care was very difficult and still something we struggle with each month as we write out those checks for our bills. Many, many parents do not have the luxury of that choice, so what can they do? How is this information of any use? Maybe the study put out by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development will incite serious searches for solutions rather than the usual finger-pointing and guilt-inducing discussions ... but I won't hold my breath.

-- Elena Gustavson

As a working mom, I feel Jennifer Sweeney is on target with her criticism of the NICHD. I'd like to see a study of these same, supposedly more aggressive children as teenagers and adults. Perhaps they are the Bill Gateses of the world "bullying" IBM to invest in new technology.

-- Marilois Snowman

I guess Salon isn't willing to even conceive of the possibility that the epidemic of parents placing their children in day care as soon as they can causes negative consequences for the child.

To say that it's better to be smart and cheeky instead of stupid and placid shows that you have no concept of the responsibility having a child entails. The growth industry of child care is a symptom of a culture that "wants to have its cake and eat it too": People want to say they have children, but they don't want to inconvenience their lives by having them. So off the children go to the day-care center.

Before you even begin to mutter, "But some families need both parents working, and what about the single moms and dads out there?" I will counter that the majority of families do not need day care. Yes, there are many people who, through their own poor choices or through no fault of their own, do not have a spouse to help them raise a child. For those, day care is a necessary evil, for they have to work to support not only themselves and their children but also the fact that they have to work.

The rest of the families out there need to take a step back, realize they don't need the new car, the $250,000 house, the extra cable goodies, the takeout or eat-in restaurant food, the summer vacation every year, etc. We all crave luxuries, and to have a child is the greatest luxury of all: one that makes all others pale in comparison. Most families can make it on one salary, contrary to the popular culture. It just takes living within a budget (which no one seems to want to do these days from the amount of consumer debt that is reported each year) and sacrificing certain things for the benefit of your children.

-- Chris Comisac

Why do the NICHD researchers think that day care is the cause of the observed aggression? Isn't there a chance it's the other way around: that badly behaved kids are more likely to get put into day care, and more likely to be left there for more hours a day than well-behaved ones?

Some parents don't have a choice about day care. Some parents do -- and they may also have a choice about how long they leave the child at the day-care center. In fact, if a child is a true pain in the butt, I can easily see parents making financial sacrifices to get that kid into day care, when they'd be more likely to keep a "nice" child at home. Is it any wonder that day-care centers might accumulate a preponderance of problem children? And that the children who stay home with Mom happen to be the ones who are well-enough behaved not to drive Mom crazy?


It is, of course, possible that separation from Mom does cause behavior problems. The way to test for that would be a study of identical twins where one twin was randomly assigned to go to day care while the other stayed home with Mom. If such a study turned up meaningful differences, then we could say we'd actually learned something. Until such a study is done, I don't know how NICHD can say that day care causes aggression. The opposite interpretation -- that aggressive kids are more likely to be sent to day care -- is just too plausible to ignore.

-- James Alan Gardner

Jennifer Foote Sweeney approaches her article on recent child-care findings with the assumption that it is necessarily an economic benefit for both mothers and fathers to work while sending their children off to day care. The truth of the matter, which many journalists would prefer the public not know about, is that the benefits -- both economic and the welfare of the child -- can often be minimal, if they exist at all.

When you take into account the cost of child care, time away from the home and lost time from work due to sickness (since children are much more likely to become ill in day care and one of the parents will need to stay home), what is there really to gain?

My wife and I made a decision with our child that it was better for our daughter to be with her mother on a daily basis than in the care of someone else. Our daughter spends one day a week in child care so she can experience the importance of socializing and become familiar with the learning environment. On the one hand, we have a lot less money to spend on the finer things in life. On the other hand, our little girl is getting the best care anyone could hope for -- care from someone who truly loves her.

Americans place too much importance on material wealth and personal fulfillment. Maybe instead of concentrating on making enough money to buy TVs, three types of sneakers and yuppie sports cars, parents should concentrate on addressing their children's intangible needs, like love, affection, patience and understanding. Maybe that way, we wouldn't have so many "smart, but nasty" children.

-- R.S. Leavitt

I'd like to thank you for your assessment of the terrorizing reports regarding the child-care industry. Having taught preschool for years in national child development franchises, privately owned day schools and corporate-sponsored day-care centers, I feel qualified to make a few observations.

While the report focused on the possible liabilities a day-care environment may create, what it failed to note is that simply because a mother or father is home with a child does not mean that the child is given social or developmental guidance during that time. Working in the home is just that, work -- and although it is perhaps the ideal, it does not guarantee that the child is being read to or sung with, or that developmentally appropriate activities are planned. Although a trip to the grocery store can be an educational outing, how many parents take the time and make the effort to approach it in that manner?

While a child is under the care of professional caregivers, the use of television is limited, outings are used as learning opportunities and "housework" is not done in the classroom or on the clock.

For 10 years I worked for ridiculously low wages, with no health or retirement benefits. I did it because I loved the kids. The children who are healthiest and happiest are the children who are nurtured and attended to. Child care is not the only problem, nor can it be the only solution for children, but with a partnership between parents and caregivers, I believe the best of both worlds is created.

Reality dictates that many if not most of our children will require care outside the home. Perhaps our time and effort might be better spent not in bashing the child-care industry but in creating better partnerships and in making realistic suggestions for families that want both financial security and happy, healthy, well-adjusted children.

-- Jennifer Huddleston

In the late 1980s funding was cut from day care, pushing up the teacher-to-children ratio from 1-to-8 to 1-to-10, thus lowering the amount of attention each child was getting.

Along with those funding cuts came the lack of raises for the teachers, causing even more stress as often poorly managed schools would require the teachers to pay for needed items in their classrooms out of their own meager paychecks.

To make matters worse, the day-care teachers are not treated with the respect they deserve. They have one of the most difficult and stressful jobs around. Years ago, I interviewed for a job as director for a chain-type day-care center. I was appalled when I was offered 100 percent coverage of my healthcare benefits, while the day-care teachers, making less money, had to pay around 40 percent of their healthcare, making it impossible for them to afford it.

How can one teacher watch 10 children all by themselves? Of course fighting breaks out. It's a skill to keep a large group of children happy enough all the time to not fight, but nearly impossible at that ratio, without an extra person.

Ideally, one teacher would teach, while the other teacher would manage child control, enabling the children as a whole to enjoy the program.

-- Susan Weiss

Most scientists, researchers and experts have a clear guidelines toward new information: If it isn't published, in its entirety, in a respectful scientific journal, then it isn't worth spit. The NICHD's "findings" on child-care aggressiveness is a prime example of why just such a rule is in place. As you noted, the NICHD is not divulging details related to the research, or making official conclusions. No scientific journal in the world would touch this story. Only American news organizations that thrive on scare tactics would consider printing such an article. Parents should blame the NICHD. They should blame their news for once again running a scare story without doing any background research in the name of ratings.

-- Scott Mahon

You ask why the researchers aren't proposing reform. There's a very good reason: There's only one solution, but it's a solution no one in this age of female empowerment wants to hear.

But, here it is: You really can't have it all. You can either sacrifice your noble careers or produce children who don't beat the crap out of each other. And, here's the fun part -- they might just beat the crap out of each other anyway!

No one wants to hear that life is about choices. I don't blame NICHD for not sticking its neck out. The report is clear, and if you can't draw your own conclusions, tough.

Personally, as a woman, I made the choice to not have children so I could pursue my goals. Selfish? Maybe. But certainly less selfish than tormenting the world with my verminous offspring while driving around in my dangerous SUV and generally annoying those of us who have enough common sense to realize no one needed to conduct these reports in the first place.

-- A. Boughton

The most chilling line of this article is "Is it a bad thing?" in reference to aggression. A plausible explanation for the findings is that working mothers place greater emphasis on education and aggression than stay-at-home mothers.

More than once in my children's education, I have heard a mother tell a child to be a leader, to be first in line, to take charge. Unfortunately this attitude fosters little concern for others, less kindness and a disregard for rules. My wife often laments that this bullying, aggressive, self-aggrandizing behavior will serve these children well in the work world.

Perhaps working mothers are just imparting their values to their children. There might be no effect of day care at all on behavior (a spurious finding). However, I still think "nastiness" is a bad thing -- in both children and adult children.

-- John Sonnega

Have any of these infinitely qualified researchers considered that children at home have few or no opportunites or reason for aggression?

Rather than 20 children to compete with for attention, they have perhaps a sibling or two. Additionally, mothers are at home specifically to give their child attention, whereas day-care providers are there to provide order, prepare and serve meals, teach lessons, choreograph art projects, etc. Children at home have abundant direct attention and children at day-care centers are actually expected to develop some independence. How shocking.

-- Lisa Forsell

Institutionalizing our children denies them the individual attention and the nurturing they so desperately need. Teachers and child-care workers (and I'm even talking about the good ones) cannot provide unconditional regard to a child like a mother can. And the children know this.

And why can't the daddies measure up? The moms have the boobs to feed the babes and the hips to hold them. With all due respect to feminism, Mother Nature just intended for women to care for their own children.

-- Mindy Shelton

Salon Staff

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