Jay Belsky’s research is often invoked by those claiming that non-maternal care is harmful to children. Jay, who is a professor at University of California, Davis, is an internationally-recognized expert in child development and family studies. His is a member of a group of researchers who in the early 90s began following more than 1,000 children from various regions of the US. Children were assessed over a dozen times between birth and age 15. The study indeed showed that children who spent more hours in non-parental care from birth to age 4.5 years had more behavior problems by the time they started school and were more impulsive and risk-prone at age 15. At the same time, higher quality of non-parental care was related to higher academic-cognitive skills at both times.
I spoke with Jay about these findings, as well as about the way both sides of the childcare debate sensationalize, sometimes irresponsibly, psychological research.
What in your opinion explains the link between time spent in child care and behavior problems later?
No one knows what explains the link! Researchers have hypothesized any number of possible suspects and came out empty-handed. Some suggested that low quality of child care is the factor, but this has not proven—yet—to be the case. My own suspicion was that non-parental care results in insecure attachment which then leads to problems, but analyses revealed that was not the case either. Another hypothesis was that children are more stressed in day care; people have looked at cortisol and stress physiology – but as yet there is also no evidence—yet--that these explain day care effects on aggression, impulsivity or risk taking.
What we didn’t look at, which I wish we did, were peer processes. We focused so much on quality and thus what adult caregivers were doing and neglected to look at what the other kids in these childcare settings were doing. There is some evidence that day care effects on aggression, impulsivity and risk taking emerge when children are in larger peer groups than smaller ones. Such a finding suggests that peer relations could be playing a role in accounting for the negative effects that have been documented.
So what should parents reading this blog conclude? Is early child care bad for kids?
Journalists often call me and say: “you claim that child care is bad” as if it’s somehow my fault that the data showed this link or I have an agenda. We like to shoot the messenger or blame people for facts we don’t like. But think about it this way: if the weatherman says it is going to rain tomorrow, is that because he is against sunshine? We need to understand the mechanism that explains day care effects on problematic behavior. So far we’ve not been able to so. It is one thing to say there’s something going on and another thing to account for why that is the case.
I take a humanitarian view regarding the implications of any and all day care findings. I often say: kids didn’t ask to be here. They deserve a decent quality of life, simply because they are children, and not because a study found that something is beneficial or not beneficial in the long- or short-run. Imagine if a study found that feeding children only once a day did not stunt their growth or undermine their health, even if it did make them feeling hungry and unhappy for much of the day; would that be a reason to only feed them once a day? The answer, if we value quality of life, is “of course not”.
That said, my personal opinion is that most parents don’t want to give their babies to somebody else to care for them when they are very little. So it’s not just babies who don’t like being taken away from their mother, it is also not the desire of most mothers, as revealed in many national surveys. We need to advocate for paid maternal leave. Families shouldn’t be forced to give their children to strangers when they are so tiny. And yet we know that if a woman in the US does return to work after childbirth, she’s going do it before the child is 6 months of age—or younger, because federal law provides only unpaid, job-protected leave (for only some employees). So women are forced to choose between their children and their careers or economic livelihood. This is what we need to focus on, and not on blaming childcare or blaming mothers.
By the way, I am involved in a big project in Norway that investigated child-care effects there. It revealed virtually no adverse effects. My inference is that the whole ecology is strikingly different. Women get paid leave for a year and there is a well-funded child care system which insures that wages for child care workers are decent and that so is quality of care.
In addition to being an internationally-known researcher, Jay is a father and a grandfather. He says he went into the field of child development because some 40+ years ago as a lost freshman in college he stumbled upon a day care center and ended up volunteering there.