In its cover story a few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine followed up with nearly two dozen mothers who had decided, a decade ago, to walk away from successful professional careers to stay home with their kids. Although none of these moms outright regret their choices, many wish they had at least continued to work part-time. Career options dry up, it seems, the longer you forgo them.
For me—the parenting columnist—the elephant in the room when I read the article was: So what was best for their kids? Parents often decide to stay home because they think doing so is better for their children. (Sure, there are plenty of other reasons, too, such as the desire to be around one’s offspring and, oh yeah, the crippling costs of child care.) But is this notion—that kids do better when a parent, typically a mother, stays home with them—actually true?
Ooh boy, does the Internet have a lot to say about this. But few articles I found presented much scientific evidence; it was hard to distinguish the trustworthy from the tripe. I did, however, find far more articles written by women who defended day care—sometimes very emotionally—than who warned against it. Was this imbalance, I wondered, driven by evidence or rationalization?
I dug into the science to find out. There’s quite a lot of research on the issue, which isn’t surprising considering how ubiquitous child care is in this country: According to the U.S. Census, 16 percent of babies under the age of 1 are enrolled in center-based day care, while 26 percent of 1- to 2-year-olds are. Adding in family-based day care—day care out of someone's home—and nannies, 33 percent of children under age 5 are regularly cared for by nonrelatives. This figure doesn’t even include the 18 percent of kids who have multiple child care arrangements.
Before I tell you about the findings, I need to share a bit about my own situation. My son is in full-time day care. (Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.) I tried my damnedest not to let my own situation cloud my reporting for this column, but it’s hard to objectively assess research on an issue about which one has already made an irreversible decision. I read studies I didn’t like and subconsciously tried to pick them apart; I read studies I liked and didn’t want to do the same; I was brought close to tears in interviews; other times I felt enormous waves of relief. Ultimately, after coming to peace with my child care decisions (and I’ll tell you how I did that later), I think I assessed the literature clearly, or at least as clearly as journalist who happens to also be a mother possibly could.
What I found is that day care can be good (primarily for cognitive development), and day care can be bad (by making kids more aggressive and impulsive)—and the good seems to become less helpful the more educated and well-off parents are. But this is important: It’s impossible to predict how day care is going to affect an individual child, like, you know, your actual kid. It may have certain effects on average, but most researchers I talked to speculate that its effects are concentrated in a subset of children. “It’s not going to mean that each child is going to have 0.05 percent probability of being more aggressive,” explains Aletha Huston, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, who was involved in one of the largest, longest-running studies on the effects of child care on development, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which followed more than 1,000 kids from infancy to age 15 starting in 1991. “What probably is represented here is that some kids are responding in that way, and a lot of kids aren’t.”
As Huston’s comment also suggests, the effects, on average, are small. What’s far, far, far more important than child care in shaping your kid’s future is what her home life is like. Jay Belsky, a child development expert at the University of California, Davis, who was also involved in the NICHD study, put it to me this way: “If you were a fetus and the good Lord came to you and said, ‘I can give you great quality day care and a lousy family, or a great family but lots of lousy day care,’ you choose the latter, not the former.” Yet in the same breath, Belsky added that even though the negative effects of day care are modest, “one needs to be careful about dismissing them.”
Let’s tease out these positive and negative effects, when they happen, and what might be causing them. Multiple studies, including the NICHD study, have found that, after statistically adjusting for the effects of social class and other potential confounders, kids enrolled in high quality child care given by nonrelatives develop slightly better cognitive and language skills—as measured at various points in their lives, all the way up through age 15—than do kids in low-quality care. These beneficial effects are more pronounced for low-income kids than children from more affluent families and for kids in center-based care than other types of care. The NICHD study also compared children in child care to children who stayed at home with their mothers for the first three years of their lives, and the ones at home fared somewhere in the middle: They scored better on verbal comprehension tests at age 3 than did kids in low-quality care, but they scored worse on language tests at age 2 than kids in medium- and high-quality care. Interestingly, studies suggest that the cumulative amount of time kids spend in care makes little difference when it comes to scores; what matters is whether they go at all and if it’s good or bad. That said, there were differences when the NICHD researchers parsed out the ages for which child care was used. Kids who spent a lot of time in care in infancy had worse academic achievement at age 4½ than did kids who spent little time in care in infancy, but kids who spent more time in care during their toddler years scored better on language tests than kids who were home more during their toddler years. Is your head spinning yet?
Obviously one key question is what it means that kids in higher quality care develop “slightly better cognitive and language skills.” I asked around, and although researchers were loath to give specifics, Belsky said it might mean a few points on a standardized test. “Good quality care wasn’t changing the course of mighty rivers and turning average kids into geniuses,” he explains. Again, although the effects are small on average, it’s possible that some kids experience more significant benefits. As for what distinguishes good care from bad: One crucial factor is how caregivers interact with the kids. Are they responsive and sensitive? Do they get down on the floor with the children or are they always standing in the back, looking bored? Higher quality care also tends to have a higher ratio of adults per child, fewer children per group, and staff is typically more highly educated.