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Bringing Down Baby

No one knows whether day care really makes kids more aggressive. But that hasn't stoped Jay Belsky from telling mothrs to stay home.

April 29, 2001|PEGGY ORENSTEIN | Peggy Orenstein is the author of "Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love, and Life in a Half-Changed World."

BERKELEY — A 1950s-style attack demands a 1950s-style response, which is why a lot of working moms last week felt the need to duck and cover. The reaction was triggered by news reports that the largest and "most authoritative" study ever conducted on the effect of child-care on development found that kids cared for by someone other than their mothers for more than 30 hours a week--that includes grandmothers, aunts, even fathers--are more likely to display behavior problems in kindergarten. As one headline put it: "Day Care Kids Are Turning Out 'Smart and Nasty.' "

It turns out that it was just one researcher--Jay Belsky, a longtime foe of day care--who, to the dismay of many of his coauthors, cast the findings so negatively, even going so far as to suggest women adjust work schedules to avoid leaving their children with others. "If you want to reduce the probability of those outcomes, you reduce the time in care," he advised. Spinning the Mommy Wars angle guaranteed that the study would land smack on the front pages of newspapers across the country. And it did, despite the fact that the findings were well-labeled as preliminary and that the study, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, draws no conclusions about whether day care is actually the culprit (or, for instance, whether the problem is stress imposed on parents by inflexible employers) or what the long-term implications might be. Also given short shrift was the news of day care's positive effects, most notably that by age 5 children in high-quality care have superior language and memory skills compared with those who've stayed home.

But then, where day care is concerned we seem to revel bad news. If the research had found children in nonmaternal care to be more obedient but less verbal, almost certainly the headlines would have read, "Day Care Kids Are Turning out 'Dumb' and 'Passive.' " Doomsday scenarios, which strike at the heart of Americans' deep anxiety about child care, sell even when they're only based on a press release (the actual report is still unpublished).

A closer look reveals the statistics to be less alarming. Only 17% of children in day care showed "explosive," "disobedient" or "aggressive" tendencies, which means the other 83% did not. What's more, the differences that do exist are well within the realm of normal--day care hardly breeds school shooters. And since 9% of children who stay home with mom are also seen by their teachers as aggressive by kindergarten, the real differential is only 8%. No matter. You can bet that from now on every time a working mother's child defies her or throws a public tantrum or sasses back at a teacher, other adults will shake their heads knowingly: "See, that's what happens when a mother neglects her child."

Of course, infinite variables affect a child's well-being. Behavior problems have been observed when family income drops or when mothers become depressed, a real vulnerability among those who stay home. According to psychologist Judith Wallerstein, divorce also causes long-term psychological damage to children. But we haven't heard Belsky, himself a divorced dad, advising parents to stay in bad marriages. "I'm not self-serving," he said when asked whether he wasn't pushing mothers to sacrifice themselves in ways he wouldn't personally accept. "I don't read the literature differently because I'm divorced."

Belsky, who volunteered to announce the study's results to the press, infuriated his coauthors who feel he distorted their work. "These are little differences" in behavior, insists Alison Clarke-Stewart of UC Irvine. "If the results showed that 50% of children in child care were more aggressive, I would agree that's something we need to be concerned about. But 17% is what the test predicts as normal in the general population."

As Clarke-Stewart points out, many factors could account for the disparity. For instance, she says, mothers who stay home may be less aggressive than those who work and so tend to raise more docile kids. Also, their children's measures of aggressiveness rise once they enter kindergarten. Maybe being tossed into an institutional setting with other kids naturally heightens those behaviors--as anyone who went to school recalls, it's a blackboard jungle out there. If that's the case, the differences may diminish or disappear in a year or two as children who've been home acclimate to the classroom. At any rate, Clarke-Stewart and other researchers on the study believe that further research is needed before reliable conclusions can be drawn.

Belsky isn't buying it. "Listen, every one of these authors signed off on the dissemination of these findings," he told me. "Are they saying something else now? People don't like to be unpopular. I don't like to be unpopular either, but I'm not going to say it ain't so. It's clearly so."

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