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The Child Care Catch-22: It's Good, It's Bad, It Doesn't Really Matter

Posted May 17 2010 6:40pm
Day care good? Day care bad? What's the deal? You won't figure it out from the headlines about the new NICHD child care study.

Low-quality child care can have lasting impact (MSNBC)

Quality Child Care Leads to Smarter Teens (WebMD)

Study Sees Gains In Good Child Care (Wall Street Journal)

Kids' day care quality makes slight difference in later tests (USA Today)

 Some facts on the child care study and the kiddies who've been tracked from the womb.  Now they're teenagers and still showing similar cognitive and behavioral "effects" of child care (i.e. anyone but mom) as the last time we heard from them back in middle school.  Seems the "effects" of child care early in life (age 4) remain constant lingering well into late adolescence (15).  Both quality and quantity matter:  

  • Teens who had higher-quality child care had higher cognitive-academic test scores
  • Teens who had high-quality care reported fewer emotional and behavioral issues
  • Teens who spent more time in child care reported more impulsitivity and risk-taking

So there's good news or bad depending on how you look at the data (and thus, the headlines).   You could get really psyched about amping up the quality of care to reap academic benefits.  But a closer look at the data, as the researchers readily point out, shows that the brainy boost only occurred within the best programs (the top 25%).  So basically it's got to be really good to count.  The average programs turn out no more cognitive benefits than the poor ones.

A common argument is that good day care can be especially important for the development of pre-academic skills/school readiness among under-privleged children.  Meaning, they can benefit more than other kids from this early intervention of sorts. But this study didn't find these differences. 

Kids deemed at risk (i.e. mom's lack of education, mom's depression, household income, etc) were no more likely to benefit from child care than anyone else. 

So it's not like child care is our answer to social inequity.  There's also the matter of a minor uptick in bad behavior associated with lower quality care and more risky and impulsive behavior with more child care, regardless of how good it is.  

But as the researchers remind us in the paper and the media - all of these enduring "effects" are quite small.  Just slight effects, really nothing for parents to worry about.

Nothing at all. 

Nothing to scare anybody from going back to work.  But noteworthy enough to impress academic journals and possibly the media.   And yes, though we'd all like to see only the best child care, we have precious little evidence it seems to make any difference.  Not any differences that you'd  notice.  Well, maybe the teachers or the principal; in a school full of children acting slightly less well-behaved.  But not that you'd notice a difference in your own child.  We'd hate for you to be concerned, parents are so much more important than child care. 

So don't worry.  We're  not worried.  I mean, where do you think our kids have been while we collected and crunched all this data?  So no, we really are not worried.  It's fine but we're calling these kids in a few years just to make sure. 

Congratulations to USA Today - they featured an undramatic, no-nonsense, nuanced report .  Yes, the paper aimed at what, third-graders?!!?

BTW: I didn't read anything about this in the journal article, but from one of the author interviews I learned that 10% of the sample included kids with no child care.  Makes me curious.  I'm not sure how strict this "no child care" definition would have been, most children by age 4 having spent some time without mom.  Could that be? Anyhow, I'd assumed these kids weren't included.
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