At our AGM in London, Jay Belsky, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Institute for the Study of children, Families and social Issues, Birkbeck University of London, gave us a thorough overview of research into daycare spanning thirty years – and reactions to findings, both from the popular press and within the research community.
In the late 70’s there was little available data on the risks or benefits of daycare. From the evidence available most children seemed to be coping well enough. People heard what they wanted to hear. There was no overtly ‘bad news’.
Trickle of disconcerting evidence
But in 1986, during the course of an invited address to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Belsky called attention to “a slow, steady trickle of disconcerting evidence” linking lots of time spent in childcare, especially beginning very early in life, with, among other things, elevated levels of aggression and disobedience among children 3-8 years of age. He was immediately accused of having a change of heart, of “maligning” daycare, being a misogynist, making employed mothers feel guilty and wanting to return to the days when women were kept barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen! Perhaps he was biased by his own status as a father.
Why the apparent change of heart?
Belsky believes the history of childcare research is important to appreciate, particularly when it comes to understanding reactions to research findings as reported in the popular press. Hadn’t he co-authored in 1978 a very well received analysis of research on the effects of childcare, concluding that there existed little work to substantiate claims that childcare posed risks to children?
Lack of available data in the early days
In fact, far from giving childcare the green light, early work had pointed to the lack of information available, such as the lack of timing, quality, dosage and type of care that children experienced. Indeed early research was carried out in daycare centres attached to universities and not typical of the care experienced by most children. There were few details available regarding part-time versus full-time use of daycare, or whether the quality of care was affected by the size of the group for example.
Evidence overshadowed by reactions
The fact that the research data which emerged between 1978 and 1986 had led Belsky to reconsider and examine earlier conclusions seemed irrelevant when, as one observer noted, “the daycare wars” broke out in response to his 1986 essay. The reactions to the research threatened to overshadow the evidence itself; the only thing that seemed to matter was that he had dared to break the unwritten 11th commandment of the field of child development: “thou shalt not speak ill of childcare” (in any manner, shape or form). The hostility provoked was unprecedented. Yet surely healthy intellectual disagreement was fine? Apparently not!
Weathermen must sometimes forecast rain!
Despite the fact that Belsky had exercised caution in making it clear that possible developmental risks were mostly associated with long hours of childcare initiated very early in life, it was still easier to believe that he must be against, for ideological reasons, any and all non maternal care. Yet, “does the fact that the weatherman forecasts rain tomorrow mean that he is against sunshine?”
Launch of NICHD study in 1991
The eventual good news was that, in the face of the changing landscape for caring for children and scientific controversy about effects of daycare, the US government, in the form of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), launched in 1991 what became the largest, most comprehensive study of the potential impact of early childcare experience ever carried out. The NICHD Study followed more than 1300 children beginning at birth through whatever childcare arrangements they experienced up to the start of school; then carefully studied their classroom, all the time assessing the functioning of children’s families and children’s social, emotional, cognitive and linguistic development. What the most recent findings, published in the March/April 2007 issue of the prestigious journal Child Development show is the following:
Plain aggression or just assertiveness?
Firstly the more months and years that children spent in childcare centres before starting school, the more aggressive and disobedient teachers rated them as being through their early school years to around 12 years of age. Especially notable was that these seemingly adverse effects of high levels of care held whether children received high, low or intermediate quality care. (And this all held true after factoring in the type of family the child was from, whether mothers experienced depression and even the quality of mother’s parenting and of family functioning more generally).
Quality care – good vocabulary
Secondly, although the quality of childcare did not seem to matter for children’s social adjustment, it did matter for their language development. The higher the quality of non-maternal care that children experienced before starting school – in whatever type of childcare they experienced, the larger their vocabularies to around 11 years of age. Quality of childcare reflects how attentive, responsive, stimulating and caring caregivers were observed to be during assessments of child care made when children were 6, 15, 24, 36 and 54 months of age.
Influence of love and sensitive mothering
Thirdly, the quality of mothering, which was assessed repeatedly for all children irrespective of whether they experienced lots or little childcare or high or low quality childcare, appeared far more influential with respect to children’s social, emotional, cognitive and language development than did any aspect of childcare. In other words, the quality of mothering – whether the child receives sensitive mothering – matters a great deal. And, perhaps for some, when a child gets low care at home, it’s possible that the negative effects of inappropriate childcare are amplified. ( Because of this Belsky suggests hat some children need more time with mum, not less, and perhaps in policy terms, this might mean that home based family support could work better than other centre based interventions).
Accept the bad, not just the good
Belsky urges researchers and commentators to examine the facts carefully. As he says “You simply cannot pick and choose the findings you like and dismiss or disregard those you don’t”. It is no good heralding the seemingly beneficial effects of high quality care on language development but dismiss or explain away the seemingly adverse effects of qualtity/dosage of centre-based childcare on aggression/disobedience. He continues, “feel free to do so as an advocate, politician or ideologue; but this posture cannot be sustained legitimately as a scientist or as someone who believes that research evidence matters”.
Belsky calls for more consistency in the way research data is interpreted. There is no use arguing, in policy orientated arguments, that improvements in the quality of childcare is all that’s required to minimise risks, yet conveniently disregarding figures which suggest we should all be more concerned about over exposure to daycare at too early an age! Findings may suggest that the risk factors are minimal, but at the very least each variable should be given equal weight. And Belsky argues that even where childcare effects are limited, the fact that they remain evident so long after the child has left childcare is in itself significant and worthy of ongoing and thorough investigation.
Useful scientific evidence
As Belsky says, parents make decisions about childcare based on many different sources of information, not only research, but individual preference and circumstances. Availability of extended family networks is another factor. But Belsky calls for the NICHD Study results to be considered seriously by parents before they make their final childcare choices. He describes the study as providing useful information and more scientific grist for the childcare decision making mill faced by most parents these days!
Cumulative negative effect
What concerns Belsky the most are the collective or cumulative effects of childcare – on classrooms, schools or communities. Consider this: whilst the air pollution in Los Angeles is, in large measure, generated by cars, no single vehicle contributes all that much to the overall level of pollution in the city. What matters is the overall large (and growing) number of cars spewing out low levels of pollutants. What matters is that a small effect nevertheless cumulatively affects a large number of children in a classroom situation – the classroom composition effect. Your children’s experiences at school, no matter how well you care for them individually at home, will be affected by the experiences of their peers.
We live in a society where more and more children, at younger and younger ages, are spending more and more time in childcare centres (and other arrangements), often of limited quality. What is the consequence for larger social systems of the modest negative effects of childcare the NICHD Study has detected? Does an infant school teacher with lots of children with long histories of centre based care, especially if of limited quality, spend more time trying to manage his/her class and less time actually teaching it, than another teacher whose classroom is comprised of fewer such children?
And what goes on in playgrounds and in communities when there are more children with certain childcare histories that may, at the level of the individual child, only increase levels of aggression and disobedience by even just a little bit? Are there more fights?
Is there more bullying? Is there less respect for adults and teachers? And what happens when modest or small effects of childcare meet up with perhaps similar modest or small effects generated by exposure to divorce, or to repeated family moves, or to poverty or family stress? What is the cumulative effect of all these changes on behaviour and relationships?
Evidence not opinion
Belsky urges those who continue to dismiss inconvenient research findings on negative effects of childcare, often by “shooting the messenger”, or to at least give serious consideration to the questions raised. We cannot carry on with a situation in which good news about childcare is presented as amazingly significant, whilst any bad news is dismissed as being not that important. He calls for an end to the mental gymnastics used to explain away nagging doubts and to concentrate instead on exploring and carefully examining the evidence.
The damage to under threes from American ‘men in skirts feminism’ was the title of Oliver James’s presentation at this year’s Open Meeting. Following on from J Belsky’s lecture, he began by questioning what lies behind society’s refusal to examine further the possible negative effects of childcare on children’s well being and development.
Needs of adults versus needs of children
Is it simply the result of confusion between the needs of the parents and the needs of small children? Why has our system encouraged parents to put earning money ahead of the health and well being of our children? How have we been seduced into abandoning the needs of our children to nurseries, breakfast clubs and extended afternoon schools? Is this really the best we can offer?
Looking at mental health
In mainland Europe 11.5 percent of adults are suffering mental health problems. In Britain this figure is 23 percent – twice as high. Today’s children are tomorrow’s parents.
Is this the kind of society we want our children to grow up in?
Affluence and related ‘affluenza’
James believes it is down to American ‘men in skirts feminism’. Commenting on the increased ‘affluence’ in society, he had coined the phrase ‘affluenza’ – a modern day virus affecting the mental health of many ordinary people.
What price affluence? James points out that the average male’s income has not changed at all and that recent trends have coincided with the increase in dual income households and an age of rampant consumerism. Access to better education and the choice and rights of individual women to satisfying, well paid work, have resulted in all women being compelled to work, whether they want to or not, and regardless of whether those who have become mothers would prefer to put their children first for a time in their lives. A dual earner couple’s income is 60 per cent higher than that of a single earner family, so that ‘choice’ remains now?
Ever increasing costs
Materialistic competition grows as dual-income household wealth grows. Children demand greater investment, whether small costs, like ever-trendier trainers and mobile phones, or larger ones, like school fees or the cost of housing in the catchment areas of high performing state schools. Yet, from the 1970s, husbands’ incomes stagnated and jobs were more insecure at the same time as consumerism was accelerating. One solution for middle-class women was to reduce the number of children and have smaller families.
The other solution was obviously to go back to work.
In America it was in 1982 that the number of dual-income couples overtook single-earner ones. House prices were inevitably driven up by the resultant increase in joint income. For the American middle classes, putting their offspring through university was a substantial investment; yet in an era of stagnating incomes, fees for this vital ingredient in ‘status success’ continued to increase. As the economic historian Avner Offer put it, by choosing to work, individually, middle-class mothers found themselves putting pressure on one another to do so, by raising the standard of what was ‘enough’. Collectively, these pressures then forced mothers back to work. The choice has all but disappeared. Over the past decade professor Offer’s main interest has been in post-war economic growth, particularly in affluent societies, and the challenges that this presents to well being.
By the 1990s nearly all American women were able to compete for better-paid, more interesting work. How could producing and raising children compete as a desirable lifestyle? The same status pressures that had squeezed the middle-class mothers out of the home were now felt in families with lower incomes. In order to keep up with one another, the low-income manual workers’ wives had to go out to work in part-time, low-paid (and less satisfying) jobs. Now a large proportion of the population were caught in the trap.
Benefits overshadowed by costs
As Offer explained, the costs of marriage and staying at home to look after children began to overshadow the perceived benefits. Financially, the lifetime costs of giving up well-paid work for looking after children for nothing became equivalent of the price of a decent family home.
Despite the improvement in education and affluence, we must ask ourselves where we can all expect to find the too-few, well-paid, professional jobs that more educated people are now chasing.
To what extent was feminism ever about joining in with the rat race?
A haven from the rat race
Increasingly men and women are feeling the pressure of increased competition and longer hours at work – and this shows in mental health figures. More women are reporting dissatisfaction with work-life balance and are beginning to look upon home as a haven from it. Two thirds of 1970s women graduates from Harvard in law, medicine and business reported having reduced their hours at work after having children and half said that they had changed jobs to be able to do so.
It seems that English speaking nations have behaved quite differently to mainland Western Europe; at a time when mainland Europeans of both sexes were converting their greater affluence into more leisure time, the rest of us are feeling time-starved.
Caring and sharing
And what of the time it takes to raise a family? Isn’t time one of the main requirements?
Time to carry out all the extra tasks involved. Oliver James believes that feminism was about changing the role of men as well as women, of fathers as well as mothers, so that tasks are shared, always assuming that men are prepared to get involved in the early years and in the distribution of domestic work.
Parenthood involves many more hours of work a day – nappy-changing, shopping, cleaning and so on. Men cannot give birth and are still less inclined to take on the role of ‘mother’. In wealthy homes, they don’t need to since a burgeoning immigrant workforce is employed to carry out household chores, but not everyone can afford to pay for domestic staff. Can men be persuaded to take up the tasks left behind by working mothers? To take equal responsibility?
What impact on relationships? As marriage and the stresses of juggling motherhood become less and less appealing, divorce or singledom become more so. James points out that women are more assertive, their confidence boosted by education, earnings and encouragement from the wider culture; on average, by 1993, in the USA, they were as assertive as men. No-fault divorce was introduced in the UK and increasingly couples reported marital disharmony. It might be supposed that such negative trends would have led to a reduction in the premium placed on love in relationships. In fact, the opposite has been the case. In the 1960s, 40 per cent of American women said that they would consider marrying someone without loving them, so long as they had other desirable characteristics, like humour or a healthy bank balance, but only 15 per cent felt that way in the 1980s. According to James, what people want most is love. In recent decades the sums spent by those who do tie the knot have inflated: the average sum spent on a British wedding is £16,500.
Yet sadly more children than ever experience family breakdown as mothers and fathers go their own separate ways.
Oliver James speaks with passion about the Affluenza – the modern day virus – which he sees as sweeping through the English speaking world. Despite increased affluence, it seems that people are more miserable and distressed than ever. One of his solutions is to value motherhood more and to pay a national average wage to every family with under threes. He appealed for suggestions and possible solutions and closed the session calling for an end to rampant materialism and the neglect of the basic needs of small children.