Kathleen Parker
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Connecting the dots between two recent federal studies, we might expect the bully problem to be with us for a while. One of those studies, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that children who spend more than 30 hours a week in day care at an early age tend to be more aggressive, especially toward their peers. "Not only were these children more likely to engage in assertive, defiant and even disobedient activities," said the researchers, "but they were also more likely to bully, fight with or act mean to other children." Now there's a chilling statement as we wonder what to do about bullies who seem always to surface in news stories about school killings. The other study, by the National Center for Health Statistics, found that though the teen birth rate has declined 20 percent in the past 10 years, the rate of births to unwed mothers continues to climb. Children born to unmarried women accounted for 33 percent of total births in 1999, according to the NCHS. Nearly one in every two babies born to women between 20 and 24 years of age was illegitimate. Or born out of wedlock. Or whatever we call babies born to tragedy these days. Now, you tell me: Who is more likely to overuse day care for their babies, thus increasing the likelihood of future misbehavior and aggression? Married couples who can share child-care responsibilities and possibly sacrifice some income for a few critical early years in order for one parent to stay home? Or the unwed mother upon whose shoulders falls the entire burden of child rearing? The NICHD behavior study, part of an ongoing study of more than 1,300 children over a 10-year period, discovered some other disturbing characteristics among institutionalized offspring. Children who spend more time in child care were found to be more fearful, shy and sad compared with children who spend less time in child care. Although these differences reportedly disappeared by the time the children reached kindergarten, one has to wonder what psychological compromises were made in the process of overcoming normal responses to perceived abandonment. Of course, no one wants to hear any of this. Day care is a necessity for many working parents - especially the single ones - and no parent needs an extra helping of guilt. Most would rather focus on the "good" findings in the study, of which there were a few. For instance: Children in higher-quality child-care arrangements during the first four and a half years scored higher on cognitive skills tests and language ability. In other words, if your child is lucky enough to find himself in high-quality child care, he'll do better on his first-grade SATs. Yippee. The study also found that organized child-care centers were more stimulating than child care in private homes (don't doubt it), and that caregivers in centers have more training and education than do home-based care providers (don't care). Infants and toddlers need physical affection and cooing more than they need advanced vocabulary and pre-fab stimulation. Meanwhile, like it or not, the dots suggest that we're creating a generation of children who may be fit for school but not society. Dot No. 1: Most single parents are mothers who aren't living like Ally McBeal and often have to settle for less than high-quality day care; Dot No. 2: One-third of newborns today are born into underprivileged homes without fathers and spend their formative years in institutionalized day care, which; Dot No. 3: Research shows puts them at greater risk for aggressive behavior, not to mention sadness and fear. We can't unequivocally conclude that mediocre day care, unwed motherhood and father absence create the bullies who taunt the boys who kill the girls (or the jocks, or the nerds or the whatevers), but we can't exactly ignore the possibility either. For old times' sake, why don't we eliminate dots one and two and find out.
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Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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