Childcare causes rumpus in the Nursery
Sunday Times 29 April 2001
US experts slog it out over claim that stay-at-home moms are best for
kids, writes Charmain Naidoo from New York
Young children who spend most of their time being cared for by someone
other than their mother are more likely to show behavioural problems, a
startling new survey has found.
These findings have sparked what is being termed "the mommy wars"
across the US as working parents (nearly 75% of whom leave their children in
some form of childcare) and scientists react with scepticism to the results
released this week.
But the study has been commissioned and financed by a premier US
scientific institution, the National Institutes of Health, and conducted by
some of the country's most respected child development experts.
They found that small children who spent most of their young lives in
daycare, or in the care of a nanny or family relation - anyone other than
their mother - were three times more likely to be aggressive, defiant,
demanding and disobedient when they went to nursery school or kindergarten.
And these findings, researchers said, were not related to the type or
quality of the childcare given or the gender of the child. The results also
held true regardless of the family's socioeconomic status.
The survey was conducted over 10 years, following more than 1 100
children in 10 cities in a wide range of settings - from play centres,
daycare groups, nannies and children cared for by relatives to pre-school
The conclusions were based on interviews and ratings by the children's
mothers as well as those caring for them and nursery school teachers.
This week, in another large-scale national survey, a group of
researchers found that bullying in the form of threats, ridicule,
name-calling, hitting, slapping and other forms of intimidation and
harassment were the norm in US schools.
However, scientists were quick to point out that the research did not
take into account, or test whether the "bullies" had spent their childhood
in the care of someone who was not their parent.
Dr Jay Belsky, 48, one of the study's principal investigators is now a
professor at the University of London.
Nearly 15 years ago, as an associate professor at Pennsylvania State
University, he first set the cat among the pigeons when he found "a slow,
steady trickle of evidence" which persuaded him that infants who spent long
hours in childcare were at risk of behavioural problems later on.
His views were published in an article titled "Infant Day Care: A
Cause For Concern?" He began the piece by saying that he would not put his
own young sons at risk and they were, instead, being cared for by their
This week, Belsky recalled the rumpus that his published views had
"I was a pariah, a phantom. I gave a talk in New York and felt
paranoid, thinking 'somebody is going to walk down this aisle and shoot
That was how bad the reaction was from working mothers and scientists
who scoffed at his suggestions.
He feels the new survey, conducted by more than a dozen researchers
who spent a decade gathering information - which is remarkably similar to
his early views - is "something of a vindication".
Discussing the findings, Belsky said children who spent more than 30
hours a week in care were "more demanding, more non-compliant, and more
"And they scored higher on things like: 'gets in lots of fights',
'cruelty', 'bullying', 'meanness', as well as 'talking too much' and
'demands must be met immediately'."
But other experts are questioning the study's results.
President of the Families and Work Institute in New York wondered
whether "it's not being in childcare that is the problem, but that employed
parents are tired and stressed".
A former director of the Centre for Child Care Workforce, Claudia
Wayne, suggested that the quality of childcare - which is often mediocre -
was at fault.
The chairman of the department of bio-statistics at the University of
Texas, Donald Berry, pointed out that the study was by its very nature
"observational" adding that "inferring cause and effect in such cases is not
One of the childcare studies researchers, Dr Sarah Friedman, said it
was possible that care providers were not trained to give emotional support.
A surprising finding was that children who spent more time in
childcare were initially rated as being more fearful and sad than other
children. But, these differences disappeared by nursery school.
The researchers will continue tracking the children to see if the
However, they did warn against drawing conclusions that children in
daycare would turn out to be violent.
Said Friedman: "The children's behaviour might be demanding and
aggressive. But it was in the normal range, not so severe it required