Commentary: Relax, Mom. Day Care Won't Ruin the Kids

By Catherine Arnst

Once again, the childcare debate has erupted into a firestorm. The spark: Press reports saying a huge study found that childcare makes kids aggressive and mean. Funny thing is, most of the researchers involved say the study uncovered no such thing.

In fact, the study shows that preschoolers who spend lots of time in childcare are no more aggressive than the preschool population at large. Those who do act up are only one level above the standard for good behavior--just what one expects to find in rambunctious 4- and 5-year-olds. What about kids cared for by stay-at-home moms? True, far fewer than the norm display aggressive behavior. But they quickly catch up once they enter school.

"MISLEADING." How could such benign data be so misrepresented? Because early press reports relied on the account of just one out of 29 researchers who worked on the study--Jay Belsky, a longtime childcare critic. His colleagues were not pleased. "We don't agree with him on his interpretation," says Sarah L. Friedman, scientific coordinator for the study. "The data he presented was accurate but only part of the story, so that can be very misleading."

The Early Child Care Study, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), has been following 1,300 children at 10 locales around the country since 1991. Interim results were presented on Apr. 19 at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. But the news reports weren't based on the scholarly presentations. They came from a press conference organized by the society the day before, and manned by only Belsky and Friedman because the rest of the team hadn't arrived yet.

Belsky, a professor at the University of London, has been stirring controversy ever since he published a hotly debated study in 1986 suggesting that infants who spent many hours in child care were at risk of later behavior problems. The conservative Scaife Family Foundation, whose stated mission is "to promote the well-being of the family and traditional values," has funded some of his research. "He is more extreme in his views than the rest of us," says fellow NICHD researcher Martha J. Cox of the University of North Carolina. That was evident at the press conference, when Friedman disavowed Belsky's assertion that parents worried about aggression should cut back on child care.

Friedman says there's no proof of cause and effect. More important, there's no evidence a problem exists. Of the preschoolers observed who spent 30 hours or more in nonmaternal care--be it day care, nannies, or other family members--the study found 17% showed aggressive behavior. According to the mothers and teachers doing the assessments, that included speaking out of turn, demanding attention, pushing, teasing, and fighting. (The word "mean" doesn't appear on the list--it was used by Belsky.) "These behaviors are distributed at the same level in the general population," says Susan B. Campbell of the University of Pittsburgh, a team member. "These children are completely typical."

What's not typical is that only 6% of the kids in maternal care behaved aggressively--far below the average. But is that because these kids are somehow less aggressive--or because, like all kids, they tend to fight with those of their own age rather than their mothers? "Perhaps there is just limited opportunity for kids not with other children to show some of these aggressive behaviors," suggests NICHD researcher Marsha Weinraub, of Temple University.

Belsky says his fellow researchers are just looking for ways to make parents feel good about leaving their children in care: "People are casting this as though if these [behaviors] aren't severely pathological, it doesn't matter." But if they are normal, it doesn't. Let's face it--75% of U.S. kids are in child care, and that's not going to change. Far better that we focus on the need for high-quality child care rather than on its overstated dangers.

Senior writer Arnst is a working mother.

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