The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released its study on early childhood day care centers this week, and the pop media is having a field day. Morning DJs and talk-show radio hosts have taken a trauma & drama approach – bemoaning the horrors of day care centers while romanticizing the life of stay-at-home moms and exaggerating and demonizing the normal behaviors of children who indeed must be socialized. Children do not spring forth from the womb with an automatic understanding of the norms and values of the culture to which they are born. Yes, proper behavior is socially-constructed and varies from society to society. And apparently, day-care centers are hopelessly inept at conveying our society’s cultural norms for child behavior.
Clearly then, if day-care centers are so horrific, women should forego work and stay home with the children. Yes, if only women would do their duty and stay home – all would be well.
How about examining the quality of the day care centers instead? The study itself points out some of the benefits of day care, as well as how the high child-to-adult ratio and lack of skilled, trained personnel affects the increase in disruptive behavior.
The study authors suggested that the correlation between center care and problem behaviors could be due to the fact that center-based child care providers often lack the training, as well as the time, to address behavior problems. For example, center-based child care providers may not be able to provide sufficient adult attention or guidance to address problems that may emerge when groups of young children are together, such as how to resolve conflicts over toys or activities.
Perhaps we should improve the quality of care at day care centers. You know – set higher standards, demand a higher level of training and education for day-care providers, mandate a lower child-to-adult ratio, provide more federal, state, and local funds for quality day-care centers, and pay day-care providers more.
I’ll be the first to admit that my gut instinct tells me that children are better off at home, in the care of a loving parent(s). Of course, there are dangers with that approach as well – the primary care-giver becomes larger than life and there’s no guarantee that a parent is better-equipped to deal with the vagaries of child-rearing than day-care providers (indeed, perhaps on the whole the day-care providers, many of whom have more experience and training than parents, would make superior care-givers – if they weren’t burdened by that high child-to-adult ratio and were paid a wage that allowed them to be financially stable).
I preferred to stay home with my children when possible. With my son, as a single parent, I took a sabbatical from work for the first three months – until financial need drove me back into the workplace. And I’ll admit - though I did often enjoy the leisurely pace of staying home with an infant, I missed the adult world. Later, after I had remarried and my daughter was born, and in consultation with my former husband, I made the choice to stay home with my toddler son and infant daughter. Yes, I stayed home when my children were quite young, for the most part, although they both spent some time first with private babysitters, and then in preschools as I went to school part-time. But my children’s hours in the custody of a care provider who was not a family member were minimal. I should add that my son has always been a behavioral problem and my daughter has not. Yet they spent the same amount of time with day-care providers.
But I was lucky when my children were young. At the time, I was a member of a privileged class – we had ample money to provide a rather high standard of living. Chalk it up to a husband who made big bucks.
Of course, what all the pop news media are missing is a thorough examination of the report. The pop media presents this report with myopic exaggeration, and as such, gives us yet another assault on women (why are we leaving our children in the hands of such horrible caregivers? What on earth is wrong with us? Oh – but I ask: what on earth is wrong with a society that so devalues its children, parents, and the family we cannot or will not provide a high-quality support system for parents and children?).
Yet the supposed scourge of day care centers actually has – according to the study - a minimum effect on our children (the risk of increased behavioral problems is only 1%). And, surprise, surprise, the impact of parents is the key factor in the behavior of children.
The effect was slight, and well within the normal range for healthy children, the researchers found. And as expected, parents’ guidance and their genes had by far the strongest influence on how children behaved.
Perhaps we should:
- Improve our healthcare system so that pregnant women and children receive the quality health care all members of a just society deserve.
- Improve the training and education of child-care providers and pay them not only a living-wage, but one which demonstrates with what high regard we hold their work.
- Develop and implement ways to make the workplace friendlier to both mothers and fathers.
- Encourage fathers to stay home with the children (which will require aggressively reducing the pay disparity between men and women so that women have a better shot at being the financial providers).
Labels: child care, day care centers, media, War on Women