Talking about Childcare
By Diane K. McHale
Issue 112, May/June 2002
Why is guilt the first thing that comes up when we talk about child care? Last year the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released data linking longer hours in child care to misbehavior. One working mother quickly responded, "There is always enough time for more guilt when you're a working mother. Then [you] look at the day's news and find out there's yet another reason why we working mothers should feel lousy about what we're doing to our kids."1
Psychologists rushed to reassure working mothers. "It [the data on misbehavior] is totally blown out of proportion," said Duane Alexander, director of the NICHD.2 "Psychologists are driving parents crazy," said Edward F. Zigler, a professor of psychology at Yale University. He added, "And people make the mistake of thinking that home is always great. Home for many kids is no bargain. We have a million abused children, mostly by their parents."3
Working mothers aren't the only ones with feelings, especially not guilt feelings. We at-home mothers are accused of wasting our education and of letting down the women's movement, and are pressured to go back to work. At-home fathers face the same prejudices and inner conflict about their jobs, added to the indignity of being called "Mr. Mom." On top of all the criticism, our families have less money than two-earner families.
Experts tell us that quality time counts more than quantity time, and we feel guilty for doing the dishes or taking a break when we should be playing with our kids. We hear that the most important factor is how happy the parents are, and we feel guilty for not being ecstatic about changing diapers. We read about the importance of cognitive stimulation and quality child care, and consider whether we should go to work to pay tuition for a fancy preschool. Headlines say that daycare may boost immunity against asthma, and we wonder if we're harming our children's very health by keeping them home with us. Any possible advantage of daycare is heralded as proof that working mothers don't need to feel guilty; the feelings of at-home mothers and fathers are ignored. All too often the efforts to make working mothers feel better end up making us feel worse.
Ultimately, though, guilt is not the issue. The value of a study's results has nothing to do with whether or not they make parents feel bad; what we all really want is the truth about what's best for our children. The point of research on daycare should never be to reassure us. We have a right to know if there are problems with daycare. We have a right to make our own decisions about working or staying home, and we have a right to base those decisions on factual information about real-world child care.
Nor should researchers and reporters assume that they know what parents want to hear. Maybe some mothers cry when they leave their babies but feel pressured to "get over it." Perhaps some parents can't convince the boss to let them work part time because experts claim that daycare is good for children. Or possibly more fathers would stay home if they perceived it as valuable.
Attempts by researchers and reporters to protect working parents from guilt don't just hurt at-home parents but result in misleading reporting. "Mothers' Employment Works for Children," proclaimed a 1999 Washington Post headline. In the story, Elizabeth Harvey claimed that her study showed "no consistent evidence of substantial effects of early parental employment on children's later development."4 But Harvey's study found that, when mothers worked during the first three years of a child's life, working more hours was associated with lower verbal ability for the children from ages three through nine, and lower achievement scores for five and six year olds. The children's verbal ability was still somewhat lower at age 12, the last age measured, but the difference at age 12 was not statistically significant.5
Harvey discounts the differences in verbal abilities and achievement because they are small and because they were not present in her sample of older children. It seems fair to say that working parents do not have to worry that their children's cognitive abilities will be permanently and drastically decreased.
On the other hand, if we discovered that eating miso soup increased children's cognitive abilities we would encourage parents to give their children miso soup--even if the increase was small and other children seemed to catch up later. We might even ask ourselves if the children not eating miso soup had really caught up; alternatively, we might worry that we had held back the children eating miso soup or that older children need miso soup, too. More significantly, Harvey's study was based on a group of mothers from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a long-term study of at-risk youth. These mothers were poorer than average, they had children at a younger age, and many were single. But the most surprising thing about them was that their median IQ was in the low to mid-80's.6
To put this into perspective, the average IQ is 100; an IQ of 51 to 70 is considered a sign of mild mental retardation; and an IQ of 71 to 84 is considered "borderline intellectual functioning." A median IQ means half the group is below the number and half above. In other words, even when half the mothers in the Harvey study were of well below average intelligence, children started school with an advantage if their mothers worked fewer hours outside the home. The advantage in verbal ability lasted until the children were nine years old. No, the children weren't all in high-quality care, but they were in the kind of care kids really get.
Another Washington Post headline announced, "Daycare May Boost Immunity to Asthma."7 The researchers suggest that exposure to germs protects children against asthma.8 They found that to get the full protective effect you have to send your baby to a center with six or more children before she is six months old. There is no protective effect if you send her after she is a year old.
Presumably, your baby is going to get sick. The Washington Post article did not discuss how badly infants in daycare centers get sick. However, another study found that children under two were more likely to be hospitalized for lower respiratory tract illnesses if they were in daycare centers with more than six children.9 A Finnish study of 2,568 children found that children in daycare centers accounted for 85 percent of the pneumonia cases in one year olds.10
For ear infections, daycare is a risk factor for "admission to hospital, adenoidectomy, and insertion of a tympanostomy tube. [In one study] children in daycare had a 50 percent higher chance of repeated ear infections. In a nine-country study, children in daycare were more likely to have a history of poor hearing, tympanostomy tubes, tonsillectomy, or adenoidectomy."11 All things considered, there might be better ways to boost immunity to asthma than daycare centers for infants.
False worries about parental feelings can lead to misleading headlines or to censorship. As one working mother said about the recent research results on daycare and behavior, "Why make us feel worse for a situation that everybody already has some tension with?" Or, as Zigler and other experts believe, "The debate should not be about whether daycare is good or bad but about how to improve what exists."12
Most parents, though, want to know if daycare is good or bad. We certainly don't want negative results to be kept secret. The latest results of the NICHD study are at least reasonable cause for concern about daycare. Researchers have found a strong relationship between the total number of hours in daycare and problem behaviors; moreover, the negative effects continue into kindergarten. The problem behaviors could be classified as aggressive: bullying, fighting, and defiance. The negative effect was present regardless of quality or type of care. It applied to boys and girls, rich and poor. In addition, children who had been in care 30 hours or more per week were nearly twice as likely to have high problem-behavior scores in kindergarten as children in ten hours or less of care (17 percent compared to 9 percent).13
How reliable are these results? The NICHD study is the largest longitudinal study ever done on the effects of child care, and one of the few to include nannies, relatives, and home daycare as well as formal childcare centers. Earlier results of the study were hailed as proof that working mothers do not need to worry about the effects of child care. Critics of the study point out that the children with high-problem behavior scores were still within the normal range, and that most children in daycare did not have such high scores. Working parents do not need to worry that daycare is turning their children into future criminals.
On the other hand, the possibility of having nearly twice as many difficult children in a kindergarten class is something to be concerned about. It might slow down the teacher, and it will certainly hurt the difficult children academically. It might even contribute to the "achievement gap" we see in many schools. Furthermore, researchers found that hours in care had a greater effect on behavior than did parenting quality--almost as great as the effect of poverty on behavior. Finally, it may be reassuring that most children did not show extreme levels of problem behaviors, but it is hardly good news if they had more fights than they would have had if they weren't in daycare.
A more serious criticism of the study is that we can't be sure that hours in daycare are causing the increase in problem behaviors. Daycare and behavior could be independently linked to a third unknown factor; for example, it may be that families who eat health foods use less daycare, and the low-sugar diet makes children behave better. Or hours at home might only affect behavior indirectly; for example, maybe parents who work fewer hours for pay can prepare family meals more often, and eating together improves behavior.
Of course, we should still keep our minds open to the possibility that more time with mom produces less aggressive behavior. And maybe, instead of seeing that as a reason for working mothers to feel guilty, we should see it as proof that at-home mothers provide quality care.
Recognizing the problems that exist with child care does not mean that mothers have to accept mandatory life sentences at home. Instead, it should be a wake-up call for real change in families and workplaces. Maybe careers should accommodate taking a few years off or working part time. Perhaps fathers should put more time into caring for their small children.
Finding problems with daycare doesn't mean working mothers should feel guilty either. I know a divorced mother who works full time and still needs help with the rent. I know another mother who stayed on her feet making sandwiches when she was eight months pregnant, so she could save enough money to stay home with her baby for two months. No one in their right mind would blame these women for working.
Working mothers shouldn't feel guilty if researchers find problems with child care, but they have a right to feel angry. Why don't more mothers have a real choice about staying home or working? Why is it so hard for one person to earn enough to support a family? Why don't more divorced fathers pay adequate child support?
On the other hand, finding advantages to at-home care could be a reason to recognize and respect the high-quality work at-home parents do. Mothers and fathers don't have to feel bad if they want to stay home with their children or work part time. More importantly, it could be one more reason for at-home parents to demand better treatment. Maybe the welfare system should stop trying to push poor mothers to work outside the home. Perhaps all at-home parents should earn Social Security credits, unemployment insurance, a childcare tax credit, and better treatment in a divorce.
Maybe we can begin to recognize and value the work that mothers do outside of the workplace. Then we can create a world where women can raise children without losing out financially and professionally, a world where men also take time out of their careers. And then women will have a real shot at achieving equality.
1. J. Frey, "Working Moms and Daycare: It's Life with a Guilt Edge," Washington Post (April 21, 2001): C1.
2. V. Strauss, "Child Care Worries Adding Up," Washington Post (April 30, 2001): A1.
4. B. Vobejda, "Mothers' Employment Works for Children: Study Finds No Long-Term Damage," Washington Post (March 1, 1999): A1.
5. E. Harvey, "Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Early Parental Employment on Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," Developmental Psychology 35, no. 2 (March 1999): 445-459.
6. T. Zoellner, "Daycare: Study on Putting Your Kids in Daycare," Men's Health (Sept 1999).
7. "Daycare May Boost Immunity to Asthma," Washington Post (August 24, 2000): A1.
8. T. M. Ball et al., "Siblings, Day-Care Attendance, and the Risk of Asthma and Wheezing during Childhood," New England Journal of Medicine 343, no. 8 (August 24, 2000): 538-543.
9. L. J. Anderson et al., "Day-Care Center Attendance and Hospitalization for Lower Respiratory Tract Illness," Pediatrics 82, no. 3 (Sept 1988): 300-308.
10. P. J. Louhiala et al., "Form of Daycare and Respiratory Infections among Finnish Children," American Journal of Public Health 85, no. 8 (1995): 1109-1112.
11. J. Froom et al., "Antimicrobials for Acute Otitis Media? A Review from the International Primary Care Network," British Medical Journal 315 (July 12, 1997): 98-102.
12. See Note 2.
13. NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, "Early Child Care and Children's Development Prior to School Entry," unpublished manuscript; and "Further Explorations of the Detected Effects of Quantity of Early Child Care on Socioemotional Adjustment," paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, April 19, 2001, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Diane K. McHale is a feminist at-home mother and writer. Her work has been published in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) and Feminist Voices. Her passions are reading, writing, talking, and children's books.