Politics & Policy

Day Care May Hurt Kids…

"…but don't worry!"

This month the New York Times reported on two new studies that show a link between long hours in day care and more aggressive behavior and anxiety in young children. The article also referenced the inevitable controversy that surrounds any study on child care. Reporter Susan Gilbert wrote:

In a measure of how sensitive the topic of child care has become, the studies, appearing in the journal Child Development, are accompanied by nine commentaries from researchers around the world that put the findings into perspective and, in some cases, rebut them.

Then, a week ago, under the headline, “Turning a Mass of Data on Child Care Into Advice for Parents,” Gilbert helped “put the findings into perspective” for presumably panicked moms by quoting those additional commentaries from Child Development. The experts’ advice is sound. They also provide comforting reassurances and appropriate, if unremarkable, qualifications about the quality of care (good day care is better for kids than bad day care).

Most media coverage of social science oversimplifies or overstates what “new research shows,” so the Times deserves credit for publishing the follow-up piece. But there’s more going on here. Whenever the Times reports on a new study that suggests that day care or maternal employment might hurt kids, a few days later they publish a follow-up piece to “put the findings into context.” While factually correct, these pieces tend to veer into an overly defensive position; Stanley Kurtz titles them, “A Thousand Reasons Not to Pay Attention to Studies that Knock Day Care.”

Exhibit A: On April 19, 2001, Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported, “Researchers conducting the largest long-term study of child care in the United States…found that children who spend most of their time in child care are three times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems than those who are cared for primarily by their mothers.”

Three days later, in a piece titled, “Science, Studies and Motherhood,” Stolberg wrote that before working moms start feeling guilty, “they should stop and consider not only what science can reveal, but what it cannot.” After all, correlation does not prove causation, there are potential selection effects (maybe moms are just more likely to dump bratty kids in day care), lots of factors influence child development, and most children don’t display problems. In sum, the study doesn’t prove that child care is harmful.

Exhibit B: “Study Links Working Mothers to Slower Learning,” stated a headline from July 17, 2002. Reporter Tamar Lewin wrote that new research suggested that “early maternal employment has negative effects on children’s intellectual development.”

Four days later, the Gray Lady reassured readers, “A Child Study Is a Peek. It’s Not the Whole Picture.” Sound familiar? In the apparently requisite “don’t panic” piece, Lewin dwelled on the study’s shortcomings. So, what do researchers agree on? Well, apparently there’s a “growing consensus” that “high-quality child care, parents attuned to their children’s needs, a good home environment, [and] stimulation” are good for kids. (There may also be a “growing consensus” that kids like ice cream.) The president of the feminist Institute for Women’s Policy Research was given the last word.

As I mentioned in the introduction, this month Susan Gilbert provides Exhibit C: Another article on potential negative effects of day care, shortly followed by a piece citing qualifications and critics.

Yet there are a couple of reasons to suspect that these “don’t panic” articles stem from something other than the Times’s commitment to dispassionate analysis on the limits of social science.

First, the Times is selective in which types of findings deserve to be drowned in the “context” of qualifiers. For example, a recent piece by Jane Brody on gay parenting implies that research clearly shows that gay parenting is, well, absolutely wonderful:

Scores of earlier studies have already shown that on virtually every level of psychological adjustment — including peer relationships, gender development, intelligence, school performance and sexual orientation — children raised by gay parents are not significantly different from those raised by straight parents.

And:

As a group, the survey found, “gay- and lesbian-headed families scored as well as, or better than, heterosexual couples on measures of relationship adjustment and satisfaction, allocation of tasks related to child-rearing and housekeeping, and communication about their children.”

It’s true that existing research gives reason to be optimistic about gay parenting. But these studies also suffer from numerous methodological limitations. I’m still waiting for Brody’s follow-up that puts this research “in perspective” and gives space to its critics.

Second, on the issue of maternal employment, the Times already has unwittingly allowed liberal ideology to shape what is considered “reality.” In 2001, Tamar Lewin reported that surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans think “it is best for mothers to stay home with their babies.” However, most moms with young children work outside the home. Based on this disconnect, Lewin concluded that “attitudes toward working mothers have lagged far behind the reality.”

However, Lewin overlooks an obvious possibility: that it is best for children if their mom stays home with them. After all, couldn’t most Americans be right? The reality of what’s best for kids isn’t contingent on the reality of what adults do. More research is needed, but someday studies might very well show that the majority’s attitudes toward working mothers accurately reflect that it’s best for baby if mom doesn’t work outside the home for 40 hours a week.

American families, especially working-class and single parents, do have it tough in trying to balance the competing demands of work and family. More family-friendly welfare and work policies would help. So would more married two-parent families. In response to the latest day care study, two letter writers to the Times asked, “What about Dad?” Indeed, fathers should join mothers in asking, “How can I balance work and family?” But that’s tougher when one-third of babies are born to unmarried parents. And, as I argued in “The Marriage Trap,” some feminists avoid talking about dads because they don’t want to admit that single parenthood is a problem.

More newspapers should follow the New York Times’s lead and discuss social-science studies in greater detail. But let’s have some balance and avoid comforting happy talk. Parents face tough choices; researchers and the media should help parents (and policymakers) make sure those choices are informed. Dismissing what may be best for kids as shaky social science or old-fashioned opinion may soothe parental guilt, but it ignores the very real trade-offs between what adults are doing and what children need.

Tom Sylvester is a research associate at the Institute for American Values and blogs at www.marriagemovement.org.

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