Is Day Care Bad For Kids? Study Shows How Fraught The Question Still Is

Friday, March 30th 2007, 3:42 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ When the National Institutes of Health issued some good-news-and-bad-news findings this week for working parents with young children, it started with the ``good'' news.

Nice try.

The rest of the world focused on the bad. The longer children had spent in day care centers before kindergarten, researchers had found, the more likely their sixth-grade teachers were to report ``problem behavior,'' such as getting into fights, arguing or being disobedient.

The findings were subtle, and the level of disruptive behavior fell into the normal range _ nuances lost in the headlines. Still, parents, daycare providers and the media focused on the negative findings, and it's obvious why: The ``day care debate'' _ is it good or bad for kids? _ is one of the most angst-ridden issues facing parents.

``When you're a parent you're always torn, wondering what you should be doing differently in an ideal world,'' says Caroline Buckway, a doctor whose 20-month-old daughter is happily attending day care in Palo Alto, Calif. ``But I enjoy my work. And at the end of the day, she's excited to see me, and I'm excited to see her.''

The report was part of what the NIH calls the largest, longest-running and most comprehensive study of child care in the United States. Researchers have tracked 1,364 children since birth; the latest results followed those children through sixth grade.

The report's other key finding _ what some called the ``good news'' part _ is that when children had high-quality child care before kindergarten (care defined as anything other than being home with the mother), their vocabulary skills in fifth grade were higher than those of kids who had gotten lower-quality care.

That came first in the NIH announcement, but it wasn't what made news. Naturally, the negative finding did.

``It's another potential guilt-inducer,'' says Janet Chan, editor in chief of Parenting magazine, who's careful not to knock the science, which she calls impressive. ``It just taps into this reservoir of guilt that's waiting to bubble up anyway. I don't think there there's a mom alive who isn't ambivalent about her choices. It's part and parcel of being a parent.''

The question of how to care for one's child touches countless new parents every day. When Klarissa Gleason's son was born 2 1/2 years ago, it was clear the family needed to keep both incomes flowing in. So they opted for day care, beginning when their baby was 6 weeks old. It's a decision Gleason has never regretted.

``I'm a big fan of day care,'' says the 31-year-old mother from Canton, Ga. ``My son is such a social animal, so he eats up all the attention. It's been a boost to his immune system. And he's learning how to accept choices made for the group _ eating what everyone eats, not just what he wants, like macaroni and cheese and french fries every day.''

For a North Carolina mother, day care was a necessity, not a happy choice. ``I hate sending my daughter to day care, but I have to, being a single mom in college with no family close enough to watch her,'' wrote Paula Pitts from Bryson City, N.C., in response to an online Parenting magazine survey a year ago. ``I think small children need the security and comfort of being at home with a loving parent.''

The statistician for the NIH study, Margaret Burchinal, says it has raised more alarm than is merited. ``Every parent is worried that they're doing something wrong, something that's hurting their child,'' said Burchinal, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina. ``But we are seeing such small associations. Our data should not make parents feel anxious.''

The study's lead author, Jay Belsky, is no stranger to controversy. He says he was vilified for an article he wrote in 1986, saying there was ``slow and steady'' evidence that non-parental child care, no matter the quality, could lead to developmental problems. Critics called him an ideologue.

Belsky, who's now at the University of London, says his aim is not to argue that kids need to be home with their mothers. ``We're not talking about ax murderers here,'' he says. ``But more and more children are spending more time in day care, much of it of limited quality. The question for me is, what are the small effects that accumulate?''

The federally funded study didn't explore the reasons why time in day care might lead to disruptive behavior. But mothers have ideas of their own. ``Maybe the children need to compete more for attention, so they get a little rowdier,'' said Gleason, the Georgia mother.

Yet she and many others find positives in the group dynamic. Buckway, the California doctor, opted for day care because she wanted her baby to experience more structure, a range of activities and a stimulating environment.

``There are pros and cons to everything,'' says Buckway, 37. ``This study isn't going to change my mind.''

For one day care provider, the age-old day care debate is missing the point.

``The question of whether day care is bad for kids has been going on for 30 years,'' says Peggy Sradnick, director of Basic Trust, a well-regarded center in New York City. ``It doesn't matter: day care exists. Bad day care is bad for kids, and good day care is good for kids.''

The better question, Sradnick says, is how to improve day care in this country so it will better serve children, parents and staff. Among the current problems she sees: low salaries for workers, high turnover, and no national policy or guiding philosophy of what day care should be.

Kim Dvorak, a 27-year-old mother from Tomah, Wisc., has seen day care from both sides. She sent her baby daughter to a center _ then missed her so much that she opened her own home-based center with a friend.

Dvorak says the problem isn't with day care itself _ it's that a lot of parents don't realize that ``day care doesn't replace the parenting that you do at home.''

A blogger on agrees. ``We can use statistics all day long to justify our own position or to tear down someone else's,'' wrote Kathryn Thompson of Seattle. ``But in the end, the study's results are only numbers, and what they really show is that we have a major influence over our children's futures every day of their lives.''