Monday, March 26, 2007

NIH: Your childcare choices might matter

A mixed bag of news surfaced this weekend about the long-term effects of early childcare on child development. While the AP reported on a study by the National Institues of Health that linked problem behavior in fifth and sixth graders to the quality of childcare in earlier years, Reuters reported on a study by the National Institutes of Health that found few effects of poor quality daycare lasting past the same age.

Wait a minute. The National Institutes of Health conducted both studies? Don't the NIH powers-that-be talk to each other?

In fact, both articles are reporting on the same research, but their interpretations of the results differed just slightly. The AP headline: "Study Links Child Care to Problem Behavior." The Reuters headline: "Few Effects of Poor Day Care Last Past Age 11." The first paragraph of the AP article: "The more time that children spent in child care, the more likely their six grade teachers were to report problem behavior." The first paragraph of the Reuters article: "Some effects of poor quality day care last until age 10 or 11, but very few, and good parenting is probably more important, U.S. government researchers reported on Monday."

Both articles are right, more or less. Read each of the articles in their entirety and you find that the results are not particularly suggestive of anything. Yes, there seem to be some lasting measurable effects on children who attended poor quality daycare centers, or who had large quantities of any sort of early non-Mommy child care (the study considered early child care to be time spent with a caregiver who is not the mother for over 10 hours per week). But these effects are difficult to pick out when just looking at a class of sixth-grade children. Sure, we might want to take note of the fact that fifth graders who had poor daycare tended to do less well on vocabulary tests, on average. But if little Jimmy acts up in class, should we tsk, tsk at his mother for not getting him into Montessori six years ago?

What is interesting here, to me, is that both the AP and Reuters reporters lead their articles not with the fact that a study on the effects of early child care has been released, but with a conclusion that childcare does or does not effect behavior in the long term, and that, faced with tenuous study results, there was such a disparity between the authors' interpretations of the research.

I don't want to read too much into the fact that that AP article--the one that leads with the statement that child care is linked to problem behavior in later life--was written by a man. I don't want to make any judgements based on the fact that the Reuters article--the one that concludes daycare doesn't mean much in the long run--was written by a woman. Mr. AP may have a spouse at home caring for his children, or may at least, as a father, be the less affected and judged of parenting partners. Ms. Reuters, may be a mother whose children are in daycare, and may, as a mother, be the more affected and judged parent in her relationship. Gender and family roles could be significant here, but I would hate to make such assumptions. Maybe neither of the reporters has children. And of course Mr. AP, if he is a father, could be deeply entrenched in fatherhood. Yet regardless of how much individual modern-day fathers are involved in or affected by parenting choices, they are still, as a whole, held less reponsible for them by society (and by the authors of the NIH study, apparently).

Because of the deep implications of childcare choices, those reading and, perhaps, those reporting on this study are bound to want to figure out what the research means for the parenting choices they are making or have made. I can say for myself that I want to read the results of the study as validation of my choice to spend as much time as I can with my child in his early years. And I know if my child were in full time daycare now I would want to pull from the results that he'll probably not be affected much by my relative absense in the long term. If I had an older child who had been in loads of childcare as a preschooler I might feel an added twinge of guilt or concern about my previous choices.

And I think these all are exactly the wrong responses to this study. There is not enough here, from what I can see, to use as the basis of a recommendation for or against childcare. Given the multitude of factors that weigh into the childcare decision for individual families, this research doesn't seem to have much to say to individual families except that they should consider their childcare choices carefully. Obviously. The results seem significant mainly from a public policy perspective, and suggest we should work to improve the quality of daycare for those families that need it and can't afford to pay a premium for it.

Is it impossible to report on the implications of guilt-laden parental decisions objectively? Is it impossible as a parent or prospective parent to read about general results of a study of about 1300 families and not want to justify or kick yourself for your decision to have a daycare center look after your child for 20 or 40 hours a week? Possibly. But perhaps when dealing with research on such important and difficult choices we should be extra careful about using that research to assuage or feed parents' insecurities, and avoid wrenching conclusions out of inconclusive research.

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