The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fall
2009

Toxic Waste from the Child-Rearing Factory


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


Research continues to confirm Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin’s identification of daycare centers as “child-rearing factories.” As part of its on-going investigation into the effects of early nonmaternal child care, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development published more findings as to how America’s own child-rearing factories are generating long-term social pollution. Findings published in 2003 indicated that young children in non-relative care during their early years were decidedly more likely than peers in maternal care to manifest problem behavior (aggression, defiance) in kindergarten. Now, a follow-up study indicates that such problems persist through the sixth grade among those children who had been placed in daycare.

The authors of the study believe that their findings deserve attention, based as they are on data collected from “a large, diverse sample, a prospective longitudinal design, a rich array of measures obtained from multiple methods, and from multiple respondents.” In part, these findings might seem reassuring. For instance, the researchers report that, placement of children in nonrelative care in their early childhood becomes a “weaker predictor” of “externalizing problems” and “teacher-child conflict” as the children involved grow older, “eventually becoming [statistically] nonsignificant” by the end of sixth grade.

However, when the researchers narrow their focus to analyze the effects “not just by time in nonrelative care in general, but time in center care in particular,” the results are disturbing. Using multi-variable statistical models, the researchers establish that, compared to peers cared for by their mothers in their early years, “children with more experience in center settings continued to manifest somewhat more problem behaviors through sixth grade” (emphasis in original). In other words, “this seemingly adverse consequence of center-based care did not dissipate” by the time the children had finished sixth grade.

When scrutinizing the effects of center-based care, the authors remark that “it is not entirely clear why the predictive power of center-care experience vis-à-vis problem behavior remains unchanged through sixth grade,” adding that “the actual mechanism of influence by which . . . experience in center care . . . exerts the detected ‘effect’ remains somewhat of a mystery.” But ordinary Americans are likely to ask: Are the consequences of growing up in a child-rearing factory rather than under a mother’s care at home really so mysterious?

Nor is the persistence of the harmful effects of center-based day care the only reason for concern. The authors worry that problems may lie ahead even among children who have been placed in non-relative care outside of a daycare center. True, the apparently harmful effects of such non-center care do fall below the threshold of statistical significance by the time the children have finished sixth grade. However, the researchers note, “caution seems warranted before concluding definitively that these earlier detected problems have permanently disappeared.” After all, research focused on “earlier developmental periods” has established that “significant relations between child care and child development that had seemingly disappeared subsequently re-emerged.” Furthermore, a number of developmental theories indicate that “important transitions, such as beginning a new school, entering puberty, or dealing with adolescence . . . can create challenges in which ‘old’ issues are resurrected.” Americans thus have reason to fear that child-care related problems that “were present early, then disappeared by the late-elementary-school years, could re-emerge in adolescence.”

America probably does not yet know the full story about the horrific national experiment of taking young children out of their mother’s arms and placing them in the hands of employed strangers.

(Jay Belsky et al., “Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care?” Child Development 78 [2007]: 681–701.)

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