Politics & Policy

Who’S Minding The Kids?

Opening the day-care-center doors.

Brian C. Robertson is a fellow in the Center for Marriage and Family at the Family Research Council and author of Day Care Deception: What the Child Care Establishment Isn’t Telling Us and, previously, There’s No Place Like Work: How Business, Government, and Our Obsession with Work Have Driven Parents from Home. Robertson recently spoke to NRO about his latest book and the dirty little secrets he reveals in it about day care.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: So, tell me: What’s a man like you doing writing about a “women’s issue” like this?

Brian C. Robertson: It’s funny that so many of the most important social issues–the sanctity of life, how our children should be raised–have become “women’s issues” according to media etiquette. I suppose that’s a testimony to the influence of radical feminism among opinion makers and in the culture at large. But the interesting thing is that, like the issue of abortion, if one actually bothers to look at the polling data, the notion that women want unrestricted abortion on demand and greater availability of center-based day care for their preschool children becomes ludicrous. The most comprehensive survey yet done on child care–by the nonpartisan group Public Agenda–found that parents prefer one parent to stay at home over a “quality” day-care center as the best arrangement for children under five by a margin of 12 to 1; 71 percent agreed with the statement that “parents should only rely on a day care center when they have no other option”; and 8 out of 10 young mothers with preschool children professed the desire to stay home with them rather than continue to work. In terms of policy, both fathers and mothers prefer options that would “make it easier and more affordable for one parent to stay at home” over those that would “improve the cost and quality of child care” by a margin of 2 to 1. Interestingly, the opinions of the “child advocates” who tend to control the debate on day care are almost exactly the reverse on these issues.

Lopez: There you go again, starting the mommy wars. Pitting working mom against

stay-at-home mom. Do you get a lot of that?

Robertson: Occasionally, from the professional day-care advocates, but not so often from working mothers. It’s sort of an intellectually bankrupt response, when you think about it: As if the issue was all about whether absent moms feel “guilt” rather than what the social-science data actually tell us about the detrimental effects of day care on preschool children. And even among working mothers, only a small minority are strong advocates of commercial group care for infants and toddlers; many consider it the choice of last resort and many others are strongly ambivalent about it; hence the “guilt” theme that the media’s always pointing to. What we owe to all parents–working outside the home or not–is the truth about day care. That’s just not getting through because the cultural gatekeepers don’t want it to get through–it goes against what Kay Hymowitz has called the “new life script for American women” which entails uninterrupted careers for all mothers, whether they like it or not.

Lopez: What exactly is the “day care deception”?

Robertson: The “deception” of the book’s title refers, essentially to two things: the continuing attempts to cover up or explain away the social-science findings that show the serious risks of over-reliance on nonparental group care for preschool children, and the continuing attempt to portray greater public investment in organized group care for children as something that time-strapped working parents demand. As I said before, all the existing polls show that the latter is just not the case; working parents want more options, especially those that would help them to invest more time at home with their own children, but there’s little evidence that they’re clamoring for more day care subsidies. And regarding the social-science findings, in my view, the evidence is conclusive and becomes more conclusive every year: Day care is both a serious risk to children’s normal development and to their health. The lack of dissemination of this evidence is really scandalous.

Lopez: I know people throw this one at you too: Aren’t you just playing with numbers to fit your Neanderthal point of view of a woman’s place? Is this legit research knocking day care?

Robertson: It really has more to do with a preschool child’s place rather than it does a woman’s place. And I don’t think that child’s place is in commercial, group care, thrown together with a bunch of other infants and toddlers, where he or she is eighteen times more likely to become ill compared with children at home, four times more likely to be hospitalized, and at 50 to 100 percent increased risk for contracting a fatal or maiming disease for each year in day care. Where, according to the government’s own ongoing study of child care, that child has a three times greater risk of developing serious behavior problems like noncompliance, talking too much, arguing a lot, temper tantrums, demanding a lot of attention, disrupting class discipline, cruelty, meanness, bullying, explosive behavior, and getting in lots of fights. I think these and other findings show that this vast social experiment of taking preschool children out of the home setting for most of their waking hours is incredibly risky at best. I think it’s a ticking time bomb for our society.

Lopez: What first alerted you to the “day care deception”?

Robertson: When I began paying attention to the studies on the effects of different forms of child care, I noticed that the reporting of the findings–both in the popular media and in the academic community of those who work in “child development”–bore little resemblance to the serious risks that day care presented for children that kept coming up in the data. I noticed, too, that the whole argument was highly ideological in nature, precisely revolving around the “mommy wars” and the feminist agenda rather than the welfare of children and the wishes of parents. It just seemed to me that no one–conservative or liberal–was willing to talk forthrightly about the issue for reasons of political correctness, although, as I have noted, the polls show a huge constituency of parents out there who are suspicious of day care, consider it the choice of last resort for their own children, and are not happy about all the subsidies and tax benefits that go exclusively towards supporting the day-care regime at the expense of parents at home.

Lopez: What most surprises people to learn about day care?

Robertson: Aside from the serious health risks associated with group care for young children, it’s probably the extent to which public policy in the United States is skewed in favor of subsidizing the day-care choice for parents through tax benefits and other means. Not only do you have the child-care tax credit available only to parents who use accredited, commercial day care at the expense of at-home parents or those who want to rely on close relatives or less formal means of care, but you have corporations being given substantial tax breaks for providing day care or day-care referral to employees. In addition to that, tax laws encourage corporations to provide up to $5,000 in income tax free to employees, as long as they spend it on commercial day care for their children. In the meantime, the tax burden on the average family with children has become heavier and heavier over the years because of the erosion of the value of the deduction that parents can take for children. If we are serious about acknowledging the proven value to society of parents investing themselves in raising their own children, this is positively perverse social policy.

Lopez: Being a social scientist who dares to actually publish research that challenges polite views about day care is not a good career move, is it? What happened to Jay Belsky?

Robertson: Belsky, because of his penchant for talking truthfully about the evidence that day care is harmful for young children, became persona non grata in American academic circles and, as a result, moved on to the University of London. When he dared to suggest that the research indicates that parents should, if at all possible, seek to reduce the amount of time their preschool children spend in day care, he was vilified by media and fellow researchers alike, his scholarly and personal integrity were impugned, and he was accused of having a hidden agenda of wanting to reverse the professional gains of women. No one successfully challenged his assessment of the findings, however; it was mostly emotional accusations about how he was only adding to the unbearable guilt of working parents who had to rely on day care. Not a very fact-based argument, if you ask me, but typical of the child-care establishment.

Lopez: What are parents saying about your book?

Robertson: The ones I know that have read it seem to agree. The tough thing about being an advocate for parents is that most of them are too busy parenting to get that involved in public policy or social issues. Which means they are at a disadvantage compared to the child-care establishment, a highly organized and well-funded interest group that has lots of influence in Washington.

Lopez: What are child-care “experts” saying about your book, if anything?

Robertson: It’s been pretty much ignored so far. That’s the great thing about being an expert or an academic: You can be very selective about arguments you choose to engage.

Lopez: Does the child-care establishment dislike parents?

Robertson: That’s one of the dirty little secrets of the what I call the child-care establishment of child-development experts: They deeply distrust the competence of parents to raise their own children. They are much more comfortable with the notion of child-development experts taking the leading role in the formation of children, not only in an academic sense, but in terms of moral values as well. It’s the ideological subtext of the debate over day care.

Lopez: Does anyone get this–as in people who make policy? Is there a revolution in the offing?

Robertson: I certainly hope so. There are some indications that we’ve turned the corner on this trend towards using out-of-home nonparental care for preschoolers, in spite of all the incentives to do so. The percentage of mothers returning to work in the first year after their child’s birth has dipped slightly in recent years; so has the percentage of married mothers with preschool children working outside the home. And the polls are encouraging. Politicians understand two things: money and polls. If they can be convinced that this is a winning issue–to level the playing field and help enable more parents to put more time into raising their own children–there’s a chance that even public policy will begin moving in the right direction and some of these gross inequities will be alleviated.


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