Day Care

Day Care Debate Misses the Point
By Ruth Conniff March 28, 2007

From the headlines about the latest day care study you’d think something big had happened. For the report click here;

The Fox News story was typical: “Study Links Child Care and Bad Behavior”. Click here for Fox story:

 Local television news ran teasers like “Day Care Takes a Beating,” and “Today’s Hot Topic: Are You a Bad Parent If You Put Your Child in Day Care?” Click here for story.

Instead of focusing on the rather modest results of a study that shows the difference between kids in child care and those not in it, the media would do well to focus on the extreme scarcity of quality care, and what a huge difference there is between the good and bad places for parents to leave their children.

So ready are U.S. audiences for a rehash of the stay-at-home versus working mom debate, the story fit neatly into a media niche: Score one for stay-at-home parenting–down with day care!

It might come as a surprise, then, that the National Institutes of Health press release describing the study actually led with the good news: Children in high-quality day care score significantly higher on vocabulary tests than their peers. The headline was “Early Child Care Linked to Increases in Vocabulary, Some Problem Behaviors in Fifth and Sixth Grades.” With all the recent emphasis on testing and grade-schoolers academic skills, you’d think that this news might jump out at people.

The long-term, NIH-funded study recruited new mothers of 1,364 babies in hospitals at ten different locations in the United States, and monitored their child care until they were four and a half years old. “Child care” was defined as care by anyone other than the child’s mother — including fathers — for at least ten hours a week. Researchers followed up with tests that showed vocabulary gains in the children from higher-quality child care backgrounds in grade school, and with teacher surveys that showed greater aggressiveness and other problem behaviors in all kids who came from some kind of child care.

Keep in mind that the types of child care arrangements measured included families in which children stay with their dad or a grandparent for two hours a day, go to an enriching morning preschool program, and those who are in low-cost, high-turnover, chain day care centers from seven in the morning until seven at night. It’s quite a range. Children who had been in center care scored higher on teacher evaluations of aggressiveness and disobedience.

“The study authors suggested that the correlation between center care and problem behaviors could be due to the fact that center-based child care providers often lack the training, as well as the time, to address behavior problems,” the NIH press release notes. “For example, center-based child care providers may not be able to provide sufficient adult attention or guidance to address problems that may emerge when groups of young children are together, such as how to resolve conflicts over toys or activities.”

On the other hand, in high-quality child care settings, these are exactly the skills that children learn.

How often do we parents marvel at our favorite preschool teachers’ calm, patient, skilled handling of toddler tantrums and scuffles over toys? A good teacher not only shows little children how to use their words, master their emotions, and solve conflicts peacefully, she (or, less frequently, he) models these critical social and emotional skills for parents. Having the support and good example of someone who really knows how to handle children is a precious resource for parents. After all, how often do stay-at-moms and working parents alike go to bed feeling guilty because they lost their cool when their willful tots tested their patience one last time after a long day? And how often does the image of the calm, good-humored, professional child care teacher float into our heads to help us remember the right way to deal with our children? Use your words, don’t yell, calm down, take a break, keep your sense of humor–above all, when confronted with toddler rage, remember that you are the adult. All of that is a lot easier said than done. But if we want our kids to learn to control themselves and turn into the kind of people others can live with, we have to give them a good example. Good preschool teachers do it every day, under battle conditions.

But here is the real news, obscured by the flap over the NIH study: there aren’t enough good preschool teachers. The chaotic center environment that the researchers postulate might account for children’s anti-social behavior is the norm in this country. So much the norm, in fact, that it would be hard to find a significant number of truly high-quality child care settings even in a group of 1,364 children.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children has a set of standards for judging quality and awarding a kind of Good Housekeeping seal to centers that meet its criteria. But the child care centers that meet NAEYC standards represent only about 10 percent of all child care in the United States. For standards click here.

 More common is the revolving door of overworked, underpaid staff who receive little or no training in children’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. The harried staffers at the average for-profit center, or the family day care providers with little training or support who take on tons of kids whose parents rush to work all day, are not
necessarily great models for parents.
But in our nonsystem of child care in the United States, the kinds of places where kids are stashed while parents go to work is of very little interest. Instead of focusing on the rather modest results of a study that shows the difference between kids in child care and those not in it, the media would do well to focus on the extreme scarcity of quality care, and what a huge difference there is between the good and bad places for parents to leave their children.

Instead of talking about stay-at-home motherhood versus child care, reporters and policymakers should take a look at what we are doing for a group of kids who have received a lot of media attention in the last two decades–the children of women on welfare.

Under welfare reform, supports for child care in states across the country have been frozen or are going down. In some states, the government will dock child care payments if a child doesn’t attend at least half time in any given week–which can happen easily due to illness and other temporary problems. As federal pool of money for child care has been shrinking, parent co-pays and child care rates are going up. Without adequate child care, welfare reform is nothing but punishment for parents and children alike.

Aggressiveness and inadequate social, emotional, and intellectual stimulation and learning are bigger problems for kids from the poorest families. But the lack of good child care is a problem that reaches way up into the middle class.

If only our society could get more interested in that problem, instead of an imagined cat fight between working and stay-at-home moms, which, in my experience, ended a long time ago.

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