Readers respond to "Jay Belsky doesn't play well with others" by Jennifer Foote Sweeney and "The wrong kind of black" by Cecelie Berry.

By Salon Staff

Published May 4, 2001 8:45PM (EDT)

Read Jay Belsky doesn't play well with others.

As the subject of your cover story, let me hog the limelight a little more to point out that while the NICHD Study of Early Child Care is not a randomized control trial, but an observational study for which causal inferences are problematical, it never ceases to amaze me that this point is virtually NEVER made by my collaborators or many journalists when reporting findings from this very same observational study -- and many others -- linking good quality of child care with enhanced child development.

In other words, sharp, skeptical minds always seem to be in abundance when there is disconcerting news to be reported about child care, but when the news is comforting those same minds switch into the cheerleading mode. Why is there no challenge when researchers detect positive correlation between quality of care and child development and, on the basis of such nonexperimental data, proceed to make causal inferences such as "this indicates that we need better quality care," something, by the way, that I believe strongly as well?

Either all findings from field studies are regarded as inconclusive and seemingly fair-minded journalists like Ms. Sweeney sweep down to chastise investigators whenever child-care data are reported in seemingly causal terms or there is something else going on here. I suspect the latter because whenever the NICHD Study has reported that high-quality care appears to benefit children, seemingly thoughtful journalists such as Ms. Sweeney are virtually nowhere to be found. Ms. Sweeney's high-handed tone, I am left to surmise, has less to do with the rights and wrong of interpreting social science data than it does with what such data suggest. This leads to the well-honed practice of shooting the messenger when the news is bad, but embracing him/her when it is to one's liking. That, to my mind, is not objective reporting, but politics pure and simple. But maybe that's OK for Salon. It can certainly make (some) readers feel good! .

-- Jay Belsky, Director
Institute for the Study of Children, Families, and Social Issues
Birkbeck College
University of London.

Thank you, Salon, for publishing one of the first and certainly most in-depth critiques of the recent NICHD study on the link between aggression and day care. The controversy surrounding the findings is more a lesson in media manipulation than it is in how thoughtful, professional social science research translates into public policy.

To be sure, research in the social sciences is a long and complex process. Procedures that are acceptable in medical research are unethical in social science research. Social scientists do have to rely on observation and correlation in conducting research, but studies have to be carefully reviewed and replicated before enough evidence accumulates and sense can be made of the findings.

Having had the opportunity to review the study last week, I can tell you that while the difference between children in day care and children in home care is statistically significant, the difference as measured on the scale of aggression is in fact small. Furthermore, in the race for sound bites and big headlines, one critical factor was lost in the shuffle: The 17 percent labeled more aggressive by the study still fell within what is considered the normal range of behavior on the Child Behavior Checklist. (15 percent is the approximate national norm for "externalizing behaviors," such as aggression.)

Even more problematic is the term "aggression" itself. What exactly does it mean? In the context of the study, aggressive or "externalizing behaviors" are defined as "assertive," "disobedient," "defiant" and "destructive." All are negative words, to be sure, but one could argue that these terms simply mean that the child is more autonomous, more independent, and capable of speaking up for himself/herself.

Undoubtedly, though, the most significant criticism one could level against this study, as Sweeney does, is that the findings are inconclusive. It's simply much too premature to use these findings to inform personal practice, much less public policy.

It's unfortunate that this study has been misconstrued to justify an array of political opinions. That children are being raised by multiple caregivers, by individuals other than Mom, is not the problem. The problem is the low pay, high turnover, and lack of training in the day-care industry, which are all factors in the prevalence of mediocre day care in the U.S. If there's a message to take away from this whole controversy it's that parents need all the help they can get, that preying on their guilt is unwarranted and counterproductive, and that there are multiple ways to raise good children.

-- Fran Stott, Ph.D.
Dean of academic programs and vice president
Erikson Institute

This child-care study has certainly made me think about my not-so-distant plans for parenting. I've been expecting that once I complete my dissertation in another two or three years, my husband and I would start a family. Having spent years of my life and not a small amount of money on my advanced education, I've also expected to have a career while raising my child or children. Would I choose to endanger my children's future by relegating them to the perils of day care, if I assumed Belsky's conclusions are correct (which I don't)?

No. I would choose not to have children.

Phyllis Schlafly may be perfectly happy to stay at home and care for her children while her husband goes out into the world of work but I ... oh, wait! That's not at all what she's done! Instead she chooses to make the most of her semi-celebrity to make sure that OTHER women do all of the above, without having any outlet for creativity, intellectual expression, or professional achievement. Call me a feminist (sneer implied), but is there any particular reason that women should lead profoundly limited domestic lives while men lead (also limited, but at least socially valued) professional lives, trying to support a family in today's economy on just one salary? Or how about more stay-at-home dads, for those who can manage one salary households? Not an option for Belsky ... any caregiver other than the mother is considered "day care."

Further, this is ONLY an issue for those who can afford to make it one. For millions of American mothers, working is not based on a desire for professional fulfillment; it is a necessity in order to put something on the table and shoes on her children's feet. And no, I'm not talking about having a career in order to keep up the SUV payments and still summer on the Vineyard -- believe it or not, America doesn't just consist of the wealthy and the middle-class. Or does raising class issues make me a Marxist?

Rather than trying to regress to some ideal fictionalized 50s-era All-American Family, Belsky, Schlafly and their ilk need to recognize the realities facing actual American families in the 21st century. Working mothers are here to stay, so let's see what we can do to help them raise good kids, okay?

-- Tenley Diefenbach

I thought, being 40 and a working mother (I have a 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter) that age would bring wisdom -- or at least understanding -- in my reactions to differing points of view. Unfortunately, reading some of the comments in the letters regarding this article reminds me that my emotional skin isn't as tough as I'd like. Apparently, however, the fact that my daughter is in day care will take care of that for her -- according to some.

Why is it that working mothers are so often labeled "selfish" or "wanting to have their cake and eat it too"? I wouldn't label stay-at-home moms with such value-laden comments. If you can, or want, to stay home -- great. If not, I obviously support that as well, having chosen it myself.

Children have always been in day care, although our various societies called it by other names -- "servants," "grandparents" -- or even left to their own devices -- because the able-bodied (read: parents, since they are in their physical prime) had to plow fields, milk cows or make clothing. I suspect any culture prior to the industrial era would be amused at our ability to argue what to them was an everyday, normal life.

Why not accept people's life choices? They aren't yours. And unless you want to start suing for custody of these poor defenseless children, being tortured in day care, accept their parents' choices and LET IT GO. Life is too short, and believe it or not, we love our children just as much as any stay-at-home mom, and want the best for them as well.

-- Eileen P. Arnold

So children in competitive situations are more aggressive. They're cruel. They seek more attention, and talk out of turn. They're pushier. Hmm, you know what this sounds like, this whole flap about day care damage?

It sounds to me like children growing up in a world where it's understood that resources (jobs, funds for school, food, air, water) will be limited, and no one will be free to pay them any attention. It sounds like these children are already aware of what their parents refuse to acknowledge: There are too damned many of them.

Ho hum, so day cares make Junior a calculating, aggressive drone. Stop having children, don't have them if you can't afford them, and you won't have this problem. We need more human children on this rock (especially the resource-sucking American variety) like a fish needs a bicycle. The children seem to be figuring this out at a tender age, the clever little creatures.

I get such a gas out of Jennifer Foote Sweeney wringing her hands that the government should do something with this gloomy news about daycare. They're not the government's kids. Breeding is optional; if you choose to do it, deal with the consequences yourself.

-- Melanie Fiori

It is rare for the public to see the flaws of scientists as people and as researchers on display. My fear is that many will dismiss research as a flawed pursuit.

As a doctoral student in clinical psychology at UC-Berkeley, I have been taught several very important lessons about how to conduct research. Not unlike the important lessons that children learn in child care:

1) Share

2) Don't bite, use your words

3) Just 'cause two things are next to one another does not mean that one caused the other to happen (i.e. association is not causation).

-- Emily Gerber, M.A.
Department of Psychology

What I find humorous about the controversy is the inversion of the logic. According to the authors, the aggressiveness observed in the study was well within normal behavior for these chidren. Therefore there was no pathology. An association was observed between day care attendance and normal aggressiveness.

What is humorous is what this says about how wimpy Belsky is: His view of normalcy is timidity. In other words, if normal aggressiveness is enhanced by day care, then this is a positive finding, which probably accounts for the positive correlation with learning. But Belsky is interpreting the finding that students in daycare are more aggressive as a NEGATIVE conclusion, which means that he finds timidity a positive trait. Wimp, somebody kick sand in his face.

-- Mike Martin

I wonder if the usual suspects who are "crowing" about Belsky's reading of the NICHD study, and demanding that mothers return to kinder-kirche-kitchen have really thought this through as thoroughly as they should.

If Mom returns home, there's bound to be less money in the family budget for bigger homes, big gas-guzzling cars (and the gas Dick Cheney and his friends profit from selling at ever-increasing pump prices), fewer consumer luxuries like DVDs, PlayStations, home computers, etc. etc. etc. (Not to mention cutting out travel to Disney World, trendy Gap Kids clothes, Toys 'R' Us, dinners and movies out, etc.)

Maybe all working moms SHOULD return home for a few years. Then we can hear Schlafly and her radical-right cadre whine about how "selfish" they are for not keeping our Red, White and Blue consumerist economy afloat by working outside the home to buy such items.

Or maybe the Republican right will get behind a living wage, universal health benefits, et al, so that it will be easier for a family to have a stay-at-home mom without cutting out basics, let alone those "selfish" luxury items.

Maybe that could happen. And maybe monkeys will fly out of my butt.

-- Kerry Reid

Read the The wrong kind of black.

While I generally agree with the writer regarding the some of the expectations of white liberals with respect to blacks, she also seems to imply something equally problematic -- that the other side of the equation must be that of the prep school and Ivy-League educated black person. She seems to go out of her way to state that she went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School (while I'm sure she is proud to have attended both, she could have simply referred to college and law school).

There is a middle area that exists for African-Americans as well, between the ghetto group that she argues white liberals seem to expect and the upper-class group (Shaker Heights being a particuarly affluent neighborhood) that she seems to be a part of. One can be a successful African-American in this country without the "status education" she seems so eager to flaunt.

-- Felicia Lee

The only thing that Cecelie S. Berry fails to tell us to make her story complete is where and what Peter is doing now. In my life I have had many experiences that mirror hers and I have learned two things. First, that living well is indeed the best revenge and second, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

-- Robert H. Russell, II

I agree with the assessment of the writer that positive black experiences are not given their due. But many of the experiences she describes are not just a black phenomenon, but an American one.

Many of the ills that affect our society are ills that strike the poorer sectors of our society first. Illegitimacy, the breakdown of the family, violence by children, drugs -- these all may have hit the black population first, but they have spread to other segments. These ills are due to broad socioeconomic changes affecting us all and must be dealt with by us all. Remember, blacks are among the first Americans to arrive here! Some are related to our best (white) families!

-- Carol Pawlowski

I read Berry's article with interest, and, for the most part, agreement. However, I think she makes one mistake; perhaps a small one, perhaps not. She writes:

Although black culture today is accorded more respect, the tendency to view blacks principally as victims persists. It is part of the symbiosis of white and black cultures, in which the belief is asserted (by whites) and internalized and acted out (by blacks) that black suffering is "authentic" and black success is "selling out.

I have seen this belief acted out and visited upon blacks who have succeeded in some educational or professional area BY blacks, but have never heard a white person describe this success as "selling out." Most people I know support success without thinking it makes someone less "authentically black." Even those whites who, ridiculously, feel fear or scorn for blacks, seem to regard a shift towards success as an improvement. To see it as a sell-out, they would have to find value in black culture -- and they do not. They participate in the myth that black culture is about hard times and poor education, without even romanticizing it as somehow a good thing.

-- Name withheld

While I understand and for the most part agree with Ms. Berry's piece, I couldn't help notice one thing that disturbs me about it: Though she condemns the common identification of black culture as nothing more than victimization by whites, she nonetheless blames whites for imposing that victim mentality on blacks, implicitly embracing the phenomenon she is simultaneously condemning. I don't get it.

-- Aaron Loutsch

I would designate Cecelie Berry as fortunate, if uninformed. She apparently benefited from an education in some of the top-rated academic milieus in our country -- unlike the majority of people of any race. She has also made a sweeping pronouncement about how ethnic literature was taught in the "late 1970s" without evidence of having looked outside the range of her own experience.

Those of us who taught literature outside Shaker Heights and Harvard did, in fact, include more than the "token" black novel or set of essays. Ask the young women I taught.

We covered a curriculum that included a wide range of black literature and culture, from Early America (Phyllis Wheatley) through the Harlem Renaissance, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X and more poetry than I can remember to cite.

I feel just as stereotyped by her remarks as she did by those that she recalls. And I was a Caucasian teacher in an overwhelmingly "white" private school. Go figure ...

-- A. Troy

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article!

I am so sick and tired of the white liberal perception that I was born in the ghetto and separated from my twin brother: a basketball.

I have always said that if Blacks were to succeed tonight, white liberals would be out of a job tomorrow.

I know exactly how this writer feels. As a Black homosexual male, I have often been used as an example of an "acceptable negro" by white liberals. Dragged from party to party like some gay Frederick Thomas, expected to explain the "pain and rage" felt by my "brethren" in "the hood," as if I'd know.

Liberals have a perception problem. They can see whites as lower, middle, upper-middle, and upper class.

But for Blacks it's all about the "hood," and "Oh, we must help them!"

I don't need their help. I've got a job! And for the record, when you tell them this, they turn on you and snarl -- more harshly than any Republican.

-- Name withheld

Salon Staff

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