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Day care: Better is better, but more is not

May 14, 2010 |  6:28 pm

No surprise that there's lots of buzz today about a new study finding that lots of day care in early childhood continues to influence the behavior and school performance of kids more than a decade later. After all, having your child in a day-care center or family day care in the years before kindergarten is pretty standard, if you're lucky enough to have a job these days.

And these latest findings, published Friday in the journal Child Development, weren't entirely reassuring. At 15, kids who spent longer hours in day care as toddlers were more impulsive and more risk-taking, by their own account, than kids who spent less time in such care. The good news is that, if it was high-quality care, there were clear academic benefits and even some compensating behavioral benefits: these kids were a bit less aggressive and more compliant than kids in poorer care.

Unfortunately, the number of kids thought to have had good-quality care were a minority. Of the 1,364 kids enrolled in the nation's largest and longest-running study of child care in 1991, 60% were judged to have low or moderately low-quality care, and just 16% had care that was rated by the researchers as high quality.

Psychologist Jay Belsky of Birbeck University London, said the long-running, federally funded study -- of which he is an investigator -- has performed an important function: to get parents, policy makers and researchers to acknowledge that the quality of day care isn't the only thing that might affect a child's trajectory. The amount of time a little one spends in the care of someone outside of his family -- or as he put it, "the dosage effect" -- also matters.

And the latest results suggest that mo' is not better.

If that makes you nervous, Belsky says, don't shoot the messenger. It's not always politically correct to tell parents that the child-care arrangements they make while working might have negative effects on our kids' lives, but good research has to be served up honestly, he says.

"My goal is not to discredit day care. It's to report openly and honestly on its effects," Belsky says.

This study is the latest product of a highly respected research team underwritten by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. Called the Early Child Care Research Network, the group of 20 institutions scattered across the United States have been following these kids, now on the cusp of high school graduation, since birth. Independent researchers acknowledge that while their findings have often been hard to hear, this is not a group with an axe to grind.

"No one wants to add more stress to the lives of working parents -- especially in hard economic times," said Sharon Landeman Ramey, professor of child and family studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. "But it would be irresponsible not to let everyone know that what happens to young children makes a difference that can be lasting." 

For what it's worth, not all mothers are fuming at the latest news -- and in the bad old days of "Mommy Wars," these studies incited some furious reaction. One mom, April McCaffery, author of the blog SoCalMom  and the mother of two daughters who spent lots of time in day care, said the debate over whether women should work outside the home and have their kids cared for by others while they do so is no longer a debate worth having or stoking. "We should use this information to improve things for kids"  and to help guide our individual decisions about our own kids.

McCaffery, 37 of Burbank, sees plenty of evidence of impulsiveness and even a little risk-taking in her two kids, Sylvia, 12, and Riley, 9. It doesn't scare her, she says. But now that she sees that her daughters' willingness "to put themselves out there" may have been shaped, in part, in day care, "maybe I need to find more opportunities to be more actively involved" in helping them navigate new challenges. For parents whose kids seem shy and risk-averse and who spent their toddler years quietly at home -- McCaffery says the latest study might suggest they should back off a bit on the "helicopter parenting" and let their kids act on a few impulses. 

"It's a balance," says McCaffery, a fulltime paralegal as well as blogging mom.

-- Melissa Healy  

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