AUSTIN, Texas — Carolyn Graglia wasn't surprised by a recent study that found more behavioral problems among children who spend significant time in day care.
Graglia's surprise came decades ago, when she became pregnant with her first child. She and her husband were high-octane Washington lawyers, and Graglia had no intention of setting her career aside.
“I changed my mind the first morning I realized I was pregnant,” she said. “I had that queasy feeling you get, and I was overwhelmed by this feeling of incredible achievement.”
She thought, “I could never go back to work. My kids deserve me.” Graglia welcomed a recent 10-year study by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. The study found that children who spend long hours in non-maternal child care are more likely to be aggressive and disobedient, and less likely to have strong relationships with their mothers.
The study fits in with reports like Pediatrics magazine's September 1999 study showing that young children in day care centers were more likely to get a variety of respiratory illnesses.
Critics accused the study of fueling guilt among working mothers and ignoring alternative explanations for the data. One popular criticism was that the results could show merely that more aggressive children were more likely to end up in day care.
Jay Belsky, an investigator in the study, responded that the study had carefully controlled for several factors: poor quality of day care, less harmonious mother-child relationships, family income, children's temperaments and mother's level of depression. “For the most part, the results remained,” he said.
Belsky said the study did not suggest that day care was always a bad choice, but rather that many hours in day care in the early years caused problems. He noted that high-quality care produced some cognitive benefits for kids — for example, they have greater language development at an early age.
He added that criticism in the press had used social science “in a very self-serving manner.” He agreed that there might be alternative explanations for the study's data, but charged that no one sought such alternative explanations when studies showed benefits of day care.
For example, Belsky noted that critics never suggested that smarter children were more likely to get put in day care — since that explanation would erase high-quality day care's cognitive benefits.
Belsky denied that he brought a bias to the issue, saying that in 1978 he worked on a study that found “very little negative effects, if any, of child care.” Since then, he said, his research made him change his mind.
Follow the Facts
Linda Waite, a sociologist and coauthor of The Case for Marriage, said, “The researchers were not only among the most highly respected in the field, but they came from different preconceived notions.”
Waite compared criticism to “the divorce controversy. Parents want to think that they can do whatever they want and their kids will be just fine.”
But Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason magazine and author of Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces, cautioned, “There's a lot of conflicting evidence from different studies. The results of one study should not be taken as definitive.”
Young dismissed the idea that more aggressive children tend to be placed in day care, saying, “Most of these kids [who showed increased aggression] started day care at 6 months. At that age, you don't see much aggressive behavior.”
She did suggest, however, that mothers who have “high-powered careers” are more likely both to place their children in long-term day care and to have aggressive personalities that they pass on to their children.
She suggested that parents could decrease behavioral problems not by reducing hours in day care, but by being “a little extra-careful to inculcate civility and a friendly attitude in their kids.” She also suggested that day care workers “pay more attention to how kids are playing.”
The Two-Income Myth
In the wake of the 10-year National Institute for Child Health and Human Development study, many critics argued that there was no point in such studies, since mothers don't choose to work but are forced into the marketplace by financial necessity.
Graglia disputed that claim, pointing out that more women whose husbands earn less than the median income stay home. “A lot of women today will say they'd like to stay home but they can't afford it,” she said. “I call it the myth of economic necessity.”
She acknowledged, “Sometimes there is economic necessity — for example, in the case of single mothers.” But she added that American culture needs to make homemaking more attractive.
“Women who feel very secure in their marriages are enabled to freely respond emotionally to their children,” she said, and so they find it easier and more fun to stay home. But a culture riddled with divorce makes that sense of security harder to come by.
Divorce law also pushes women into the workplace, Graglia claimed: “Today, women who give up their jobs are in great economic peril,” she said. If their husbands leave, such women are told to jump into the work force in middle age.
Graglia added, “Our tax laws are very badly used to encourage paid day care. You get a tax break for what you spend on child care.” She suggested a “raising the child” tax credit instead, since that would benefit both families who used paid day care and families where relatives or Mom cared for the kids.
Many women want to stay home: In a recent survey, roughly 70% of young mothers called day-care centers the “option of last resort.” But how can a family do it?
Waite suggested that if one parent goes to work early and the other comes home late, even families that rely on two full-time incomes can keep a child in day care only from 9 to 4.
“From 8 in the morning to 6 at night, which is pretty standard, is a long time,” Waite said. “Who could thrive in such a situation?”