Day scare

Will child care stunt your kid's social skills? Three studies find downsides, but the results aren't as terrifying as they seem.

Published November 2, 2005 11:45PM (EST)

As if overcrowded classrooms and school budget cuts weren't enough, parents who opened up Tuesday's New York Times found something else to worry about: the findings from three new studies about child care that call into question some of its supposed benefits.

Parents who thought their children were acquiring valuable social skills at day care discovered that two of the studies, which focused on cognitive and social development in kindergartners and third-graders, found that while kids who spent long hours in child care developed strong reading and math skills, they tended to have poorer social skills than children who stayed at home with a parent. And parents who might have thought that private nannies or family care arrangements -- where a caretaker looks after several kids in a private home -- would be safer for their children, discovered, via the third study, that their kids were 16 times more likely to die than children in child-care centers.

The conclusion -- in the somewhat qualified and thoroughly oversimplified Times piece -- seemed to be that working parents, no matter what they do, are more or less screwed. Put your children in a day-care center, where they might develop "diminished levels of cooperation, sharing, and motivated engagement in classroom tasks, along with greater aggression" -- or pony up for a nanny or family day-care arrangement and risk shaken-baby deaths or fatal accidents. Interestingly, the studies found that higher-income families seem to be worse off: One study found that the social development of children from parents who earn at least $66,000 a year was affected more dramatically than that of lower-income kids.

But a deeper look at the studies show that there's little reason to panic. Child-care fatality rates are very low (between .71 and .83 per 100,000 kids, depending on what survey data you use), and the behavioral studies offer no cause-effect conclusion. Indeed, the behavioral changes of children in any kind of care arrangement are small. "They're not in a clinically at-risk range," says Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of one of the studies covered in the Times piece. Both he and the other researchers interviewed for this article agree that these studies are more important to consider when making policies about universal preschool or after-school care centers -- they speak to the need for regulated child care and better-trained and -paid care providers -- than for individual family decisions about child care.

Fuller's study -- called "The Influence of Preschool Centers on Children's Development Nationwide: How Much Is Too Much?" -- drew on a nationally representative sample of 14,162 5-year-olds, including data from parents and kindergarten teachers, and found that social development was lower for kids who spent more time in preschool. But it's not as if these kids lose social skills, he says; their growth slows down. "You have to picture this on a graph where toddlers and 2-year-olds start low, because they have few social skills," he says. As kids grow older and develop those skills, "that upwardly sloping curve starts to flatten out; the natural rate of social development starts to slow down, compared to similar kids that stay at home with the parent." (The study, which focused on subgroups based on income and race, did find one anomaly: Hispanic kids received the same cognitive benefits of preschool without any detrimental effects on their social developments. "That's a small mystery," says Fuller.)

Fuller and his colleagues found that the greatest adverse effects were on kids from high-income families, who performed poorly against similarly high-income kids who went to preschool for half-days or who didn't go at all. To Fuller, this suggests two possibilities: that there is a limit to the resources that even the best preschools can provide, so that "higher-income parents can't find higher-quality centers," because at some point more money just won't buy better care. Further, he posits, "kids who stay at home and kids that stay in preschool for less than 30 hours a week have a richer home life," meaning they spend their time playing sports, taking ballet lessons, being read to by their parents. In other words, preschool isn't necessarily harmful, it's just not as good as coming from a well-off family where at least one parent doesn't have to work.

But, says Fuller, it's important to remember that this data isn't about parental failings; rather, it's "symptomatic of a larger problem in American society," where more often than not, both parents have to work. If anything, these findings should embolden us as a community to "nudge employers to adjust the structure at work for young parents."

There's also a simple way to look at Fuller's report and see that kids in child care are just learning to navigate a different social scene than kids who stay at home. The social skills the study looked at included "children's externalizing behaviors (such as, aggression, bullying, acting up), interpersonal skills (such as, sharing and cooperation), and self control in engaging classroom tasks." Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., points out that when kids are around other children, they "learn to argue and fight over things they don't have to do at home."

Fuller suggests something similar. "Thinking back to when my kids were 4, after about six hours, everyone gets a little cranky," he says. "That can be compounded by around 2, 3 in the afternoon, the real teachers head home, and now kids are hanging out with a classroom aide. Given the quality of that kind of situation, children may become more aggressive or less cooperative. Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, you're having play dates, also social activities but more one-on-one supervision."

Also mentioned in the Times was the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care, whose findings were similar to Fuller's study. Four years ago, the Early Child Care study, using a sample of 1,364 kids who were 4 and a half, found that, while the reading and math skills of kids in child care were better than those of their stay-at-home counterparts (regardless of the type of care facility or family income), the more time the children spent in child care, the greater their aggression levels and noncompliance. That study sparked a great deal of controversy because one of its researchers touted conclusions to the media -- that putting a kid in child care caused these problems -- that his colleagues disputed. Last week, the NICHD published a follow-up report on the same kids who were in the 2001 study. It showed that by third grade, the children had swapped one set of problems for another: While the correlation to aggression went away, poor work habits and social skills appeared. (The Times piece suggested that the earlier study also found poor work habits and social skills, but according to Cathryn Booth-LaForce, one of the researchers on the project, that's incorrect. Also misleading is the Times' assertion that kids who spend more than 30 hours in child care are at risk for these problems. "The more hours in child care, the poorer the work habits in school, according to the teachers," says Booth-LaForce. "It doesn't have anything to do with 30 hours.")

But Booth-LaForce says that it's important to keep in mind that "all of these effects are small compared to the effects of parenting. Math and reading scores are small, too" -- the difference of a few points. As for what could cause children in child care to develop poor social skills, she's not drawing conclusions: "We don't really have an explanation for it at the moment."

And as Coontz points out, reporting on these studies tends to blow small findings out of proportion. "You're talking about a tiny minority of problematic cases, and usually problematic cases come with a whole other set of risk factors." Further, family units are so different, a norm cannot be so easily applied. "Families are changing so rapidly, it would be crazy to take an average generalization and make an individual family decision on the basis of it," she says.

Nor should parents feel guilty for working and, thus, having to rely on child care. "A much bigger impact on a child is whether they have a depressed mother or not," says Coontz. "And some mothers are more depressed when they don't work."

Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan, professors emeriti at the University of California at Berkeley, point out that the relationship between two parents can be a much larger influence on the emotional and intellectual development of a child than child care. "We get upset when people get totally focused on child care as if it's the key issue," says Carolyn Cowan. In their longitudinal studies, they've tracked couples, some to whom they've taught parenting skills and others they haven't. "When parents are offered help to become the most effective parent they can be," she says, "and when they feel more effective as a couple, their children do better, academically and socially."

In these other studies, "The question is, is day care OK or not?" says Philip Cowan. "And that's a question that doesn't make sense, because there are other factors." The important point, he says, is that "the relationships in the families make more of a difference than child care. If kids need to be in child care, we need to make sure our parenting is in shape."

Cathryn Booth-LaForce concurs. "What I tell parents, no matter how many hours children are in child care, it's important to give their children a lot of attention and love when they're with their child. They should make sure they know what's going on in the child-care situation. What does the child-care provider do with social skills?"

And Bruce Fuller says that the upshot to these findings is that parents will realize that they need to be "more discerning shoppers" when it comes to child care, but also that perhaps we need to think about more than cognitive development when we're talking about early childhood education programs. "One implication is that in the rush to move to universal preschool, there's a lot of discussion on how to align preschools to standardized testing. These findings suggest a need for equal focus on how we nurture kids.

As Fuller suggests, the real implication of these studies is how we think and talk about governmental and company policies, like standardized testing, universal child care and flexible hours for working parents. It makes most sense to look at the third study, which was published yesterday by the American Sociological Review, as evidence of the need for regulated child-care centers. Julia Wrigley, a sociology professor and acting associate provost at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, co-authored the report, which shows that the rate of death among kids who were taken care of by a private caregiver was 16 times higher than for kids in child-care centers. Although it's by far the most alarming finding in any of these studies -- Wrigley is talking about death, not the ability to share, after all -- it is also nothing for parents to start panicking about.

Wrigley culled data from news reports, state records and legal cases to create a database of 1,362 child fatalities nationwide from 1985 to 2003, including 203 shaken-baby deaths. (To put those numbers in perspective, consider that each day approximately 8 million kids are in some form of paid child care.) All violent deaths occurred when kids were being watched by a nanny or a caregiver in a private home. In child-care centers, which are regulated by the state, and where a caregiver is often surrounded by other adults, violent deaths were nonexistent. Though death resulting from a child being left in a van or wandering off on a highway did occur at care centers, overall those centers turned out to be far safer than private care.

Part of the reason for this, says Wrigley, may be structure -- care centers are often set up like schools. "If you look at public schools, a teacher almost never assaults a child," she says. But many parents can't shake the romantic image of the doting nanny or the coziness of a family day-care center. "People have felt that the warmth of individual caregivers is particularly valuable for infants, but our study shows that those individual caregivers can become highly stressed," says Wrigley. "We may be asking more of people than they can give." On the other hand, she says, "It appears that even in centers where the workers are not paid well, there is enough structure to keep adults from losing their tempers."

Wrigley thinks that the main thing to take away from her study is the fact that we "need to think what we can do for individual caregivers that would bring out the best in them. There are some bad apples in the field who are responsible for more than their share of injuries. It's vital that there be some regulation of the market. We have basically an incoherent child-care system."

But the last thing parents should do is panic. "Fatalities are quite rare," Wrigley says.

Coontz says the conclusion to draw from these studies is that we need more studies. "What we need next," she says, "is detailed studies on what kind of difference there is between couple dynamics. At this point, experts simply don't know enough. These are small variations compared to what parenting counts for."

And perhaps there's also room to show not just what children can lose in child care, but what they can gain. "What I hope is that what the day-care people do is follow up on the kids that did well," says Philip Cowan. "Because there's a great deal we could learn from them."

By Priya Jain

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

MORE FROM Priya Jain

Related Topics ------------------------------------------