Is non-parental daycare bad for children? Developmental science has been wrestling with this question for decades without reaching a conclusion. But studies continually come up with inconsistent, conflicting results.

For example, studies have linked daycare to children's behavior problems, failed to find a link, or found that daycare is linked to a reduction in such problems. Regarding cognitive development, studies have found negative effects, no significant links, and positive daycare effects. Research has shown that daycare hinders the quality of parent-child relations, does not hinder it, that the adverse effects are small and transitory, or intermittent. Early daycare has been linked to both problems in parenting and to improvements in parenting interactions.

Scientists like to think that they can provide useful answers to society's pressing questions, but the truth is, some questions simply can't be answered definitively by science. The question about the effects of daycare may be one of those.

First, as social scientists studying a social institution, daycare researchers face inherent challenges. Social change, which is often rapid and unpredictable, works to continuously shift the terrain that daycare researchers study. Results that were valid five, 10 or 20 years ago may no longer be valid in the present. In this way scientific inquiry often plays a losing game of ‘catch up' with society, like those fabled Golden Gate Bridge painters who, once finished, have to immediately begin to paint the bridge all over again.

Second, the daycare question exists within a particular sociopolitical context--a whirl of conflicting and shifting social and parental ideals, fears, myths, and expectations. How research findings are framed is likely to reflect and shape the meaning and implications of the data for parents, policymakers, and children.

For example, research has found that children who averaged over 45 hours per week in daycare during the first 54 months scored about 3 points higher than the mean on a measure of behavioral problems. This finding could be presented as a negative, and worrisome, effect of daycare. But it could just as well be viewed positively, as evidence of the extraordinary resilience of infants. 

Science, it turns out, has no inherently superior claim on knowing how its findings should be framed. In fact, there are always conflicts over how to present and view scientific findings; in the real world, parents and policy makers apply their own idiosyncratic interpretive schemes as they seek to assign a clear cut meaning to nuanced and ambiguous research findings. Thus, the answer to the question: "Is daycare bad for children?" depends heavily on how different scientists, parents, and policymakers define the concept of ‘bad for children.' Consensus on that question--both within and between each of the above groups--is, in this context, impossible to attain.

Several specific methodological limitations also make it difficult to answer the basic daycare question. Daycare research cannot rely on true experimentation, since random assignment of children to different developmental, family, and care conditions is unethical and implausible. In the absence of pure experimentation, daycare researchers rely heavily on correlational designs. Correlation, as any first year college student should know, does not imply causation. The fact you wake up with a headache every time you fall asleep with your shoes on doesn't mean that the shoes caused the headache (it's the liquor causing both...)

Another difficulty in translating daycare research findings into a coherent message to consumers is related to the issue of ‘statistical significance.' ‘Significance,' as used in research, is a statistical term, denoting a certain confidence that the findings are not due to chance. That something isn't a chance occurrence doesn't necessarily make it important. It is not easy to know how to represent, or even imagine, a ‘significant finding' in terms of its actual impact on children and society.

The calculus becomes ever more problematic when we have to consider multiple determinants of varying importance that may interact in unknown and varying ways over time. For example, will those children who show higher cortisol levels in daycare (a sign of stress), benefit later in life from their working parents' increased prosperity? What level of child discomfort are we, as a culture, willing to tolerate in the name of affording women full participation in society?

The fact that daycare research has not managed to answer its own fundamental question has not deterred daycare researchers from seeking a voice in the policy arena. In fact, research and reporting are routinely done with an eye on politics and policy. This is often evident in the very presentation of the research.

For example, when significant study results emerge that point to the potentially negative effects of daycare, they tend to reverberate further in the popular media and thus are presented with much buffering and caution. On the other hand, when positive results emerge about daycare, no such balancing is needed; no concern is raised for the suffering of home-reared children.

In addition, policy makers are often ambivalent about scientific research. The goals of politics and science are not always compatible. Science (at least ideally) holds ‘truth' based on ‘empirical evidence' as its core value. Politicians seek to win votes, which often depends on emotion and perception rather than mere facts. Moreover, when scientists make policy recommendations, they most often operate outside their area of expertise. If they adhere to the language and sensibilities of science, policy makers may view them with exasperation. On the other hand, scientists who graft political language, sensibilities, and ambition onto their science run the risk of losing scientific credibility.

The fact is, scientific findings in daycare research rarely lend themselves clearly and unequivocally to one policy solution. Non-parental daycare in the U.S. is a controversial issue, as the cultural ideal still strongly favors maternal care of young infants and children. Thus, in terms of policy and resource allocation, the daycare question is not framed as a choice between two equivalent care options. Bad parents still have more say over their children than good caregivers. As researcher Sandra Scarr pointed out, when children in daycare are found to fare less well, daycare is called a risk factor. Findings that show daycare children out-performing home-reared children do not, however, lead to parental care being labeled a ‘risk factor.'

If nothing else, the research on the effects of daycare has demonstrated the complexity of the links between experience and development. Considering this complexity, it is clearly more accurate to refer to multiple daycare questions, rather than to one ‘big' question. If the research has shown us anything, it is that how the phenomenon under study behaves will depend heavily on how both ‘phenomenon' and ‘behavior' are defined, measured and analyzed. Different types of children incur different types of effects in different types of settings at different times, and in different contexts.

In sum, despite its ambition, the daycare literature cannot settle the issue of whether daycare is good or bad for children. Thus the decision equation, even for the most informed consumers of the research, remains perpetually personal.

(This piece is based on an article published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, in 2006, entitled, "The Effects of Daycare: Persistent questions, elusive answers.")

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