There are times when you sense that we are in the realm of "Mustn't Be True." On the day that the National Institutes of Health released its report showing that day care seems to have undesirable effects on the behavior of a significant percentage kindergartners, scores of commentators (mostly women) were ready with what amounted to a "don't confuse me with the facts; my mind is made up" response.
"Aggressive according to whom?" demanded one female commentator who must not have read the study (aggressive means "gets into a lot of fights," "cruelty" and "explosive behavior"). Marion Wright Edelman, tireless advocate of government solutions to problems, offered, "The last thing we need to do is to be scaring parents, or alarming parents who have to work in order to put food on the table ..."
But this isn't just about poor parents. Certainly the parents whose children are being cared for by nannies (who were observed as part of this study) are not one step away from the poor house.
The "Mustn't Be True" chorus next discounted the numbers. Seventeen percent of children who had spent time in day care showed aggressive and difficult behaviors in kindergarten, as compared to 6 percent who were raised by their mothers. "Well that means 83 percent were just fine," crowed another analyst. Besides, she added, "We really have to decide whether we expect to raise our children the way our mothers raised us." And then, answering her own question, she said, "It's not happening anymore."
Several commentators whined that the study seemed aimed at provoking guilt only among mothers, not fathers. (The study is just a study and not "aimed" at anyone.) Others trotted out the hoary old rationalization that day care improves children's social skills (the research would seem to support the opposite conclusion). Some mentioned that moms do a better job with children when they are fulfilled in other ways. (This is dubious.) And still others took the occasion to demand better quality care subsidized by the taxpayers. (The Holy Grail.)
The study looked at all kinds of day care -- large institutional settings, nursery schools, relative care, nannies, even dads -- and found that all were inferior to mother care. Children who spent significant amounts of time in care with people other than their own mothers were three times as likely as home-reared youngsters to be aggressive, defiant, impatient and attention-demanding. These findings held true for girls as well as boys and for rich as well as poor, and almost without regard to the "quality" of alternative care they received.
Well, say the critics, we cannot know that day care is the culprit here. It could be a million other things. Possibly, but as Jay Belsky, one of the lead investigators and a former proponent of day care explained, "There is a constant dose-response relationship between time in care and problem behavior, especially those involving aggression and behavior." In other words, the more time away from mom in the early years, the more problems. The effects really begin to kick in when a child spends more than 30 hours a week in alternative care (the national average is 26 hours per week).
Critics are correct that social science can be tricky. It could be, as The New York Times speculated, that mothers who place their children in child care are more stressed than mothers who don't, and the stress rather than day care itself is the problem. Maybe, though with 65 percent of married mothers with children under six in the workforce, and a presumably larger percentage of unmarried ones, it seems doubtful that all are emotionally fragile.
It's also possible that in this era when working women get all the glory, the ones who buck the trend are those most committed to doing right by their kids. If this is true, some of the moms who are currently placing their children in day care might wind up being worse for their children than day care providers.
And yet, the obvious conclusion of the study does seem the most plausible -- little kids do best with their moms. And if that's true, our best course is to figure out how to help more mothers do this job, rather than rail at reality.