Could parenting get any harder?

A longitudinal study on American childcare shows that time spent in day care can lead to behavior problems later on.

Published March 27, 2007 3:44AM (EDT)

First, some background: I'm 28 and don't have children. Every morning I pass a day-care center near my home with a sign that says "Jungle of Fun 'Child Care'" and I feel a little shiver run up my spine. Sure, part of that shiver has to do with the fact that on the sign "child care" is in quotation marks instead of the "jungle of fun." But there's something more: I find the idea of parenthood overwhelming. I know I want children eventually, but every time I think I might be getting over my fear of babies, I see an article like this one from The New York Times and start to freak out all over again.

Its title is "Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care" and it reports some of the findings of the largest and longest-running study on American childcare, from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Begun in 1991, it originally had more than 1,300 participants (the number has now dwindled to closer to 1,000), and is now in Phase IV -- that is, following the kids through age 15.

But the Times article is focused on an earlier stage in these children's lives: their time in childcare. According to the Times, the researchers have found that "keeping a preschooler in a day care center for a year or more increased the likelihood that the child would become disruptive in class -- and that the effect persisted through the sixth grade."

Sure, genes and parenting are still thought to be far greater variables than childcare in determining how your kids will turn out. And it's not a gigantic difference -- according to Dr. Margaret Burchinal, a co-author of the study quoted by the Times, "every year spent in such centers for at least 10 hours per week was associated with a 1 percent higher score on a standardized assessment of problem behaviors completed by teachers." But still, it makes the prospect of parenthood even more daunting. And considering the fact that the article is currently the second most e-mailed on the Times' list, it looks like it's struck a note with other people as well. Which leads me, in a naive, childlike (child-less?) way, to ask you, Broadsheet readers, this question: Are we ever going to figure this out? Is there a good way to have a kid and have a career? Will there come a time when I can stop running away from strollers? If so, do tell. As it stands now, I'm worried that if I put my as-of-yet hypothetical children into day care, I'll be sending them into a jungle -- and not necessarily a fun one.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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