Boy, does the media love a good daycare controversy. Since we haven't had a good Satanic abuse or child molestation daycare story in years, we have to make do with provocative statistics. It's not the same, but it allows us to air our gender anxieties and maternal issues, and we seem to have a collective need to do that at least once a year.
Last week's media frenzy focused on the latest National Institutes of Health day care study-- actually on one finding in particular: kids who spent three or four preschool years in daycare had marginally more behavior problems in school. Researchers themselves said kids were "in the normal range" and parents shouldn't freak out -- but such caveats were lost in the cacophony. This week, the reports are still making the roundsin the blogosphere, with many bloggers offering a salutary corrective to the way the story was initially reported. Many mainstream journalists, as usual, were eager to twist the results to confirm the most reactionary assumptions: mothers shouldn't work. The very best analysis anywhere was Emily Bazelon's terrific dissection on Slate.
The study suggests some interesting possibilities. The quality of the day care mattered a great deal (though the quality of the care children received at home, from their parents, mattered even more). Many day care centers are substandard, especially those available to poor people. Watching TV in the company of underqualified strangers can't be terribly helpful to a kid's development. Raising the pay of child care workers would certainly help improve the quality of care, and more oversight of the daycare industry would be helpful. There's a great daycare center in my neighborhood-- caring, intellectually and socially stimulating -- but since it costs more than three years of my college education, I have never even visited it. All kids deserve to attend places like that. But in addition to improving daycare, we need to get more companies to offer on-site babysitting so that parents and children can spend more time together. And of course, people should have more choices: it should be made much easier for parents to take longer parental leaves or work part time when their children are very young.
Another possibility is that some of these "behavior problems" are just no big deal. As American University/University of Maryland economics professor emerita Barbara Bergmann writes in a not-yet-published paper on these studies ("Long Leaves, Child Well-being and Gender Equality"), "It would be helpful in thinking about policy issues to have an idea of how bad the behavior of the children...actually is. Are they merely argumentative, or are they a bit nasty at times, or are they monsters? Unfortunately, it is impossible to get that kind of understanding from these reports." Like so many well-researched studies, this one inevitably leads us to the conclusion that...more research is needed.