Fighting Words

Last week, when the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development released the preliminary results of its decade-long early-child-care study, headlines blared the sobering news. ”Toddlers‘ Time in Child Care Linked to Behavior Problems,“ the Los Angeles Times asserted in a front-page treatment; ”Day Care Linked to Child Aggression,“ cautioned the AP wire. Of the major dailies, only the New York Times, in analyses by Sheryl Gay Stolberg (”Another Academic Salvo in the Nation’s ‘Mommy Wars’“), considered both the source and tenor of the information. To judge from headlines anywhere else, working mothers might just as well have been running a dangerous racket in the deliberate breeding of rowdy kids.

Oddly, neither the hysteria nor the headlines were supported by the study, which will not be published for another year, pending peer review. According to the press releases issued by the NICHD prior to the biennial meeting, in Minneapolis on April 19, of the Society for Research in Child Development, the study found that 17 percent of preschoolers who spend more than 30 hours per week in any kind of non-maternal care exhibit aggressive behavior, compared with 6 percent of children who stay home with their mothers. But it also found that higher-quality-care situations may improve the young children‘s language and memory skills. The methods of the study, which included using ratings from caregivers and kindergarten teachers to evaluate some 1,300 children across the U.S., were detailed and complex, as are the data that have emerged so far. But never mind the gray areas: When a lead researcher, Dr. Jay Belsky, and a few colleagues held a press conference on the Wednesday before the Minneapolis meeting, the advice was concrete and the tone foreboding. ”Extend parental leave,“ Belsky commanded, ”and reduce part-time work.“

The next day, the Los Angeles Times ran a follow-up story, ”Child-Care Report Stirs Emotions,“ featuring the image of a sad-eyed child struggling to fall asleep in her sterile and featureless white daycare center nap bed -- the equivalent, we can infer, of the wire substitute-mother-monkey-with-milk. The overwhelming and unmistakable message: A woman makes a choice between a career and the well-being of her child. On one side, deputy state attorney general Karen Darling refuses to give up the fulfilling career for which she studied so hard, even if it means placing her 2-year-old and 9-month-old children in daycare. By contrast, Lori Berg of Newport Beach gave up her career as a corporate lawyer for the sake of her children. The implication is that Darling dares to raise bratty kids. But extrapolating as liberally from the same data, one might just as easily conclude that Berg is putting her kids at risk for poor academic performance by keeping them at home instead of placing them in high-quality daycare.

So, who’s the Bad Mother now?

As everyone -- researcher or reporter or reader -- already knows, the stark reality is that women, middle-class or impoverished, have little choice about whether they work; indeed, even welfare moms have to push a broom these days. And it would be tempting to assail the study as having set up just one more of those horrible double-binds women have always been subject to, a sort of Sophie‘s choice for the millennium Mom (”Let’s see, shall my children go without supper tonight, or hugs?). Belsky, of London‘s Birkbeck College, has been set upon by brigands of feminists since 1986, when he issued other grim predictions about troubled daycare kids. “The story is probably playing out in the news this way because it supports what was predicted by Jay Belsky 15 years ago,” suggests Dr. Susan Spieker, a research professor in child development at the University of Washington, who served on the NICHD study’s steering committee. “I suppose he feels vindicated.”

But it‘s not clear whether there’s much to feel vindicated about. Seventeen percent, according to Spieker, is not a particularly alarming number. “As a matter of fact, 17 percent is considered ‘normative’ -- it‘s what we’d expect to find. It‘s typical of a developing population. So this isn’t a cry of alarm -- it‘s more a matter of interpretation.” After all, she notes, “83 percent of children in a lot of hours of daycare are doing just fine.”

Nor are the bad behaviors necessarily so bad: The study observed “externalizing” behaviors: assertiveness, aggression, defiance and disobedience, not the “internalizing” psychological symptoms of shyness and introversion, which are harder to measure. According to UC Irvine Professor Alison Clarke-Stewart, another participating investigator, “Kids who are seriously psychologically disturbed are quite likely to show both kinds of symptoms, both externalizing and internalizing.” Stewart also notes that acting up may be triggered by other factors, such as the adjustment a child has to make from an unstructured daycare environment to the rigors of school. “But at this point,” she says, “it’s all speculation.”

Even Belsky admits the evidence is “not overwhelming.” But he can‘t stop drawing battle lines: “What if we had found the same thing, the same way, but our predictor variable was growing up with a depressed mother, or in poverty?” he responded by e-mail. “I can assure you that if we were finding what we were finding but studying these more politically correct factors in children’s lives, these data would be embraced wholeheartedly.”

To be fair, they have been, at least by many in the media. “It‘s kind of ho-hum to say kids do better in higher-quality care,” says Clarke-Stewart. “But if you allude to problems related to child care in this climate of concern about schoolchildren shooting each other, it’s like lighting a match to a dry field.”


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