Inconvenient Truths About Childcare Subvert the Very Best Intentions
It wasn’t that long ago that there were frequent (and frequently annoying) discussions about the “mommy wars” in mainstream media outlets. It made for good copy, but even the phrase diminished the real issue to a kind of cartoon, a metaphorical mud-wrestling match between briefcase-toting, business-suited career women and apron-clad, breastfeeding, stay-at-home moms. The real question, which for a variety of reasons wasn’t seriously addressed, was whether it is better for mothers to stay home and raise their own children or put them in the care of hired help. And for most women, hired help meant daycare.
There isn’t much talk about the “mommy wars” any more, or whether daycare is good or bad for children. That’s because, despite study after study to the contrary, daycare has simply been accepted as acceptable. Which takes us back to why daycare wasn’t reported on deliberately and fairly in the first place.
When I was a producer for CBS This Morning, covering family issues, we sometimes partnered with Parents magazine. So one day I had lunch with the then-editor to talk about possible future projects. I suggested working together on a series about daycare. Before the word was barely out of my mouth, she stopped me by saying that Parents magazine chose not to cover daycare “because parents suffer enough guilt already.”
It took a while for the full implications of that statement to sink in. Parents magazine put parents’ potential guilt above children’s potential welfare. And of course there was the not small matter of selling magazines.
Former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg discusses the issue of daycare and the media in his book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. Like magazines, television news organizations need to make money. And they do that by going after good ratings. Stories about the possible downside of daycare aren’t likely to be popular, as Goldberg writes, “especially given that the not-so-subtle implication is that working mothers aren’t doing a very good job raising their children. That implication might first induce guilt (which probably isn’t too far below the surface), but then morph into anger . . . aimed squarely at the messenger.”
Writing recently for National Review Online, Suzanne Venker makes another good point about why daycare is so rarely discussed in the media: “most of the women in the media rely on substitute care for their babies and toddlers in order to do what they do every day; thus, they’re hardly in a position to address the matter in an unbiased manner.”
Too Little Attention
One of the few new books on the subject is by May Saubier, who has a master’s degree in Special Education, and began working in daycare when she was 16 years old. Her book, Doing Time: What It Really Means to Grow Up in Daycare, is a firsthand account of what everyday life is like at daycare centers. Saubier worked at high-quality centers, with low adult-to-child ratios. For the most part, she has nothing but praise for the women she worked with. Her compelling account isn’t filled with horror stories. It’s not a headline-grabbing exposé, but a realistic look at what life is like for the millions of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who spend their waking hours in daycare. It’s not a pretty picture.
Putting aside the matter of parental love versus paid care, there simply aren’t enough adults in daycare centers to provide sufficient time and attention for the children, especially the infants and toddlers. Laws regarding adult-to-child ratios in daycare centers vary by state. Saubier worked in New York and New Jersey, for example. Compared to other states, their numbers are considered good: both require one adult for every four infants. Only three states require a lower ratio, of one adult for every three infants. And some allow one adult to look after six babies. For two-year-olds, the range of ratios is much greater. New York and New Jersey require one adult for every five, while Louisiana and Mississippi permit a ratio of one adult per twelve two-year-olds.
Saubier, now a mother of two, told me that within the first two weeks of her first job at a daycare center she knew she would never use daycare for her own future children.
I can remember sitting in the middle of the room and taking it all in and thinking, “How can anyone think this is okay? Or think that this is a nice way to grow up?” I was looking around me at many children who needed much more than all the nice women at the center could possibly give them.
A Poignant Story
When Saubier and her fellow daycare workers learned that a new child would soon be coming, “we braced ourselves for the tormented cries of a confused child who would soon be spending his or her days with us.” She stresses that crying in daycare is not limited to the child’s first few days. “Children are continually crying in daycare,” she writes, “because there is often no one available to pick them up when they fall, wipe their noses when they have a cold, kindly show them that hitting and biting is wrong, or tenderly change their diapers.”
I found one of Saubier’s stories especially poignant:
One winter, while on the playground, I passed by a group of two-year-olds. One was stumbling around in the cold, crying, and I put out my arms to him to see if he wanted to be held. Not knowing me at all, he still came to me and I stood there holding him a bit. He put his head on my shoulder and I regretted having to put him down. Soon there were three others at my feet asking to be picked up. I remember thinking that it was really pathetic that these little ones were begging to be held by someone they did not know. I held each one quickly before returning my attention back to the infants in my care.
The Wrong Kind of Socializing
In 2001, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development released the results of a study of 1,000 children, conducted over a ten-year period in ten different cities. The NICHD study found that children who were in daycare more than 30 hours a week were almost three times more likely to engage in aggressive and disruptive behavior than children in daycare fewer than 10 hours a week.
Another study, published in the journal Child Development, tracked levels of the stress hormone cortisol in toddlers while in daycare. For 71 percent of them, levels rose throughout the day. When the same children were tested at home, there was no increase in cortisol levels.
Parents, experts, and even politicians often defend and promote daycare with the claim that it helps children learn how to socialize. But based on her firsthand experiences, Saubier has a different take on the kind of socializing daycare cultivates. “Socializing in daycare fosters aggressive behavior simply because children are forced to go into survival mode once deposited among so many other children who are at a self-centered, ‘me’ stage developmentally,” she writes.
And while biting may not be exclusive to children in daycare, it is a serious, prevalent problem there. Saubier describes many incidents of biting, with the results clearly evident in the numerous bruised, swollen, and teeth-indented marks one sees on the children, sometimes even on their faces. One especially sweet little girl in Saubier’s care became a habitual biter. “Wherever she was, she simply did not want another child to crawl on her, touch her, pull themselves up on her, push her out of the way, etc. And who can blame her? She learned she could survive by biting them.”
The Dreskins’ Experience
Sadly, all this is not new. In 1983 William and Wendy Dreskin published an account of their experience running a daycare center, called The Day Care Decision. The Dreskins started out running a half-day preschool in the San Francisco area. It was a high-quality program, with low adult-to-child ratios and teachers who had at least one year of graduate training. As more and more dual-career parents began seeking out daycare programs, the Dreskins decided to expand to a full-day operation.
Soon they started seeing changes in both the children and the parents. “Some of the same boys and girls we had known as nursery schoolers became different children when they were subjected to the stress of full-time day care,” they wrote. Some withdrew, lashed out, or cried incessantly. The Dreskins also noted that parents seemed to cede more responsibility for their children to the center, not coming to school meetings, not checking books out of the center’s library, not dropping in on classes. And their stress was evident when they picked up their children at the end of the day: they were in a hurry to get home, with little patience to look at their children’s handiwork.
“For two years we watched day care children respond to the stresses of eight to ten hours a day of separation from their parents with tears, anger, withdrawal, or profound sadness,” the Dreskins wrote,
and we found, to our dismay, that nothing in our own affection and caring for these children would erase this sense of loss and abandonment. . . . The problem was not with our facility. . . . It was obvious that there was a problem inherent in day care itself, a problem that hung like a dark storm over “good” and “bad” day care centers alike. The children were too young to be spending so much time away from their parents.
The Dreskins decided to close the center.
Haunted by the Best
While editor of The American Enterprise magazine, Karl Zinsmeister wrote an article called “The Problem with Day Care.” That was back in 1998, but it remains one of the most comprehensive pieces on the subject. Among other things, he quoted from letters he’d received from individuals with firsthand experience of daycare. One was from a public school teacher with nearly grown children, who worked at a daycare facility while between jobs. She was assigned to the infant room, and worked with three other women caring for twelve babies nine hours a day.
This experience was one of the most poignant of my life, because it was impossible for us even to approach the level of care we believed a child needed. . . . I watched children being traumatized as workers came and went. . . . [Noted psychologist] Burton White even came to visit us, and to speak to us of his belief that children, if they are to grow up healthy and happy, need to be under the care of their own mothers, at least until they are three years of age. . . .
I have been haunted these past several years by the images I carry from this “best of all possible” institutional day care centers. . . . [B]efore my year in day care work was over, my co-workers and I were able to convince five of the 12 mothers whose children we cared for that they would be happier, and that their parent-child relationships would be healthier, if they would quit their jobs and would stay at home with their children.
Part of the Landscape
When May Saubier sent out query letters to agents and publishers in an effort to publish Doing Time, she was directed to women who were in charge of parenting publications. On the occasions when she actually heard back, she was told that her book was too pessimistic and would make mothers feel guilty. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one would publish it. Undeterred, she self-published the manuscript, and Doing Time is available as an eBook on Amazon.
As for the studies that showed increased aggressiveness and stress hormones in daycare children, the editors of Child Development delayed publication of those findings for several months, seeking out commentaries from child development experts. When finally published, the studies’ results were accompanied by nine commentaries from various researchers offering their perspectives, and, in some cases, rebutting the findings. As Saubier notes, had the studies shown how wonderful daycare is, it’s doubtful the journal would have felt compelled to publish differing views.
On the rare occasions when the media does any reporting on daycare, it’s usually along the lines of NBC’s recent Dateline expose of daycare centers run by women with criminal records. The more serious issue of the downside of daycare itself long ago became unmentionable, especially in female company. Sanctioned by the media, and now by the masses, daycare is part of the modern feminist landscape, children be damned. •
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