It Takes a Family

Friday, April 30, 1999

Recent news accounts have proclaimed that day care is good for kids. A couple of typical headlines—“Better Behavior in Day Care, Federal Study Finds,” “Mother-Child Bond Not Hurt by Day Care”—are misleading.

Most childen in day care—55 percent in one study—are securely attached to their mothers; the headlines are correct about that. But so are most kids cared for at home. In fact, most studies show that a greater percentage of kids cared for at home have strong bonds with their parents than do kids in day care. The headlines don’t report that the chances of secure attachments are higher for kids at home.

That insecurity can carry high costs. Long-standing research in child development has shown that children who are insecurely attached to their mothers and fathers are at higher risk for a host of undesirable outcomes. They are likely to be more aggressive and impulsive, less confident and independent. They are likely to have more behavior problems and exhibit more antisocial behavior.

Everyone knows that no one can control how kids turn out. Parenthood is an exercise in risk management. As in the business world, there are no guarantees that any particular decision will be successful. Successful managers take command of the elements that can be controlled, introducing features that favor a desirable outcome and eliminating high-risk factors. Responsible parents, like good managers, try to create an environment that has the best chance for success. It does seem, though, that caring for children at home substantially reduces the risk of the child being insecurely attached.

More detailed studies identify which groups of children are at greater risk. Boys in day care are at greater risk of insecure attachment than are girls. The risks to children under the age of three seem to be greater than those for older children. The more hours a very young child spends in day care, the more the risk increases of insecure attachment.

Why not give parents the full story, rather than cover all this information under a security blanket of a headline? Parents can make better decisions about their own situation if they know some of the risk factors.

I realize that some child care advocates do not trust the average parent to make intelligent child-rearing decisions. Some argue that children are better off with competent professional care than with amateur parental care. But even the most obtuse set of parents can figure out whether their child is a boy or whether their child is under three. Even couples who are deeply committed to the labor force can make marginal adjustments in their hours at work if they know that something substantial might be at stake.

Here’s my own story about day care and attachment. In 1991 my husband and I adopted a two-and-a-half-year-old Romanian boy who had lived his entire life in an orphanage. Orphanage children are at risk for having no attachments at all, a condition that can lead to behaviors such as compulsive lying, fire setting, and torturing animals. Talk about a risk factor! Because of our boy’s many special needs, we worked with many child development professionals: pediatricians, speech therapists, educational specialists, and even psychologists specializing in disrupted attachments. Not one of them ever mentioned the existence of research on the effects of nonmaternal care on attachment.

To be fair, perhaps they assumed that the damage done by the orphanage experience dwarfed anything that might happen to him in nonmaternal care. Or perhaps they did not want to offend me by suggesting that it might be in my son’s interest for me to stay at home. They knew I was a career woman.

But I am a grown woman. I can face facts if I have the facts. Many other professional women place fidelity to the facts and to their families ahead of loyalty to a particular job done in a particular way at a particular time in their lives. Women deserve the full story: Putting kids in day care subjects them to additional risks.