Reuters reported yesterday on a study of the effects of poor daycare. The headline: "Few Effects of Poor Daycare Last Past Age 11". Now that's a bizarre headline for you - are we to be outraged or relieved?
Your response is likely to be based on your presuppositions and assumptions, your already-established opinion on daycare. Those who hold daycare in suspicion will be outraged: "The bad effects of poor daycare can last ten years!!" Those who have found daycare to be a positive thing might be able to salvage comfort: "See? Even a bad daycare doesn't ruin a child's life! A good daycare can be a great thing!" And of course, no one deliberately leaves their child in inferior daycare. But still... ick!
The article's summation isn't as fearsome. It states that there are in fact, very few negative effects of poor daycare; that hardly any of these last as long as age 10 or 11; and by that age the effects are very subtle. So, all in all, not so bad as the headline might give one to believe.
But, just because we can read the words, we can't assume we know what it's saying. When you hear "poor daycare", what does it mean to you? When you consider possible "negative effects" of daycare, what do you think of?
You know what you mean by those things. BUT: is that what the researchers meant? The thing is, you can't know until you read the article (and sometimes not even then) whether you mean the same thing by "good daycare" as the researchers. You don't know that their "negative effects" are the same as yours.
So, how did the study define these terms?
For the study, "Child care was defined as regularly scheduled care by anyone other than the child's mother, lasting at least 10 hours per week. Quality child care is complex to define but includes having trained caregivers and a low child-to-caregiver ratio." (Emphasis mine.)
I don't know what factors the reporter has left out. Training for caregivers is important, and child-to-caregiver ration is not insignificant... but... would you choose a caregiver or daycare centre on these two items alone? Are they even at the very top of your list?
I once worked in a daycare centre owned by two women. The staff-child ratio was slightly better than the legal requirements. The space was decent. Not wonderful, but clean, safe, well-lit and well-stocked with toys, and a small but pleasant outdoor play area. Both women who owned the centre had all the requisite education and at least 15 years experience. One was warm, friendly, quick to laugh and a good communicator. The other... Let me give you a picture of the other...
One day during afternoon snack time, a child was whining. It was the end of the child's first week in care, and her first full day at the centre. She had just woken from her nap and was sitting in circle waiting for her snack. She was still a little groggy, she was hungry, she was missing her mommy. And so, being about 15 months old, she was grizzling a bit. Not loud, but consistent. Give her another fifteen minutes to eat her snack and wake up a bit, and she'd have been fine, I'm sure.
That other daycare owner didn't want to give her those 15 minutes. She stormed across the room, and hunched over in front of the child so that she was nose-to-nose with her. I don't remember if she held the child by her upper arms or not, but I do remember what she said.
"Shut up!" She hissed in a voice dripping with venom. "Shut up! You are NOT worth the effort."
So. Good physical environment, good staff-child ratio, good training = good childcare?
I think, given that the place is safe, most parents would be more interested in knowing how often children are touched, hugged, kissed. How often a caregiver smiles, doles out praise. How discipline is accomplished. How conflicts are managed. Education is important, but character even more so. They can't teach patience and love at college.
And how about "effects of daycare"? The study lists things like scores on vocabulary tests (very slightly better in the fifth grade than children who received 'poor quality' care). There were no differences in math, reading or other skills. Test scores? And very subtle differences? I just can't imagine that minute differences in test scores are that important to the majority of parents.
Here's a finding that does warrant attention: "Children who were in child care were more likely to be aggressive and defiant in kindergarten." This is the sort of information that matters to parents. This is the sort of finding that warrants a closer look. What aspects of care were making this behaviour more likely? How can they be managed, controlled, reduced? Nor does it say whether this aggression continued past kindergarten. (Even then, please note, researchers said the all the effects were subtle. Dr. James Griffin, who oversaw the study, is quoted as saying "If you went into one of these classrooms, you wouldn't be able to say 'this child, this child, and this child attended center-based care'." The differences just aren't that great.)
Another comment - Dr. Griffin refers to "centre-based care". Does this mean it's equally applicable to in-home care, whether by a nanny, a neighbour, or a relative? Likely not, but we don't know for sure.
Bottom line: though the headline is provocative, and the content interesting, there are far more questions left unanswered than answered. It doesn't really tell us much, this article. So don't be using it to back up your assumptions!
But here's a fact that will encourage: the study found that attention from parents is far more important to how a child turns out than day care or schooling.