What the day-care study really found.

Snapshots of life at home.
March 28 2007 5:21 PM

The Kids Are Alright

What the latest day-care study really found.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The headlines blared this week. "Does Day Care Make Kids Behave Badly? Study Says Yes" (ABC). "Child Care Leads to More Behavior Problems" (Fox). "Day-care Kids Have Problems Later in Life" (NBC). "Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care" (New York Times). And, ironically, "Bad Mommies" (Slate).

It's useless to rail at the press for leading with the bad news and for ignoring the researchers' caveats that no cause-and-effect conclusions can be drawn from their data. Still, coverage like this feels designed to twit working parents. And it turns out that in the case of day care, the headlines and the stories really were alarmist—even wrong.

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The source of the fuss is the latest installment of a long-running $200 million effort by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Since 1991, a team of researchers has been tracking more than 1,300 children, following them from infancy through various child-care settings (home with mother, home with another relative, home with nanny, or at day care) and into elementary school. In the March/April issue of Child Development, the team asks "Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care?" To answer that question, the researchers report their findings about the kids' academic achievement and behavior through sixth grade. The study controls for a host of variables, like socioeconomic status, quality of parenting (annoyingly, this measure involves only mothers), quality of child care, and quality of the elementary-school classroom. It's all very well-done and careful.

By sixth grade, the researchers detected few differences between the day-care center kids and the others—shall we just call them the Children Whose Parents Truly Love Them?—who had stay-at-home moms or nannies or some other arrangement. What mattered more than early child care, in terms of school performance and behavior, were parenting and genes. "Parenting quality significantly predicted all the developmental outcomes and much more strongly than did any of the child-care predictors," the researchers wrote. Never mind that central, important finding. The downside of day care is what everyone wants to talk about.

Let's lead with the good news for working parents: The study found that kids who went to high-quality day-care centers had an edge over all the other kids on vocabulary scores. This association didn't decrease as the kids got older. But then there is the finding that inspired the headlines: "Teachers reported more problem behaviors for children who spent more time in centers." This effect also held steady over time. And as the New York Times put it, "the finding held up regardless of the child's sex or family income, and regardless of the quality of the day care center." As in, Beware of Day Care. No matter how good you think your kid's is, it's making him unruly and disruptive, two favorite media adjectives for kids who cause trouble at school.

Stop. When I reached the study's author, Margaret Burchinal, yesterday, she asked if she could explain something she feared had been missed. "I'm not sure we communicated this, but the kids who had one to two years of daycare by age 4½—which was typical for our sample—had exactly the level of problem behavior you'd expect for kids of their age. Most people use center care for one or two years, and for those kids we're not seeing anything problematic."

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