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 

No Substitute for a Mother’s Care

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Whether advocating for universal preschool or more daycare subsidies, interest groups at both state and federal levels seem intent on pushing preschool-aged children out of the home and into institutional settings. Yet the research continues to raise red flags about the merits of maternal substitutes during early childhood. Indeed, a study by social-work professors at the University of South Carolina finds a robust correlation between negative social outcomes and child enrollment in all formal pre-K settings.

Mining data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort, the South Carolina researchers explored the relationships between different types of early-childhood care experiences—including informal care, daycare, Head Start, and prekindergarten—and seven measures of school-readiness at the start of kindergarten. Not all the outcomes related to non-parental care were negative. Relative to their peers who received parent-only care, children with one year of prekindergarten scored significantly higher in both measures of cognitive outcomes (reading and math scores).

Children who were placed in formal care settings at earlier ages also enjoyed, to a lesser extent, better cognitive outcomes, but the researcher’s full statistical model found that the effects of one year of prekindergarten “substantially” mediated these more modest effects. Moreover, the general pattern did not apply to children enrolled in Head Start, who scored significantly lower on the two cognitive measures than did children who stayed at home with Mom.

These qualified outcomes of cognitive measures, however, were overshadowed by negative and more significant effects of all kinds of pre-K care settings outside of the home, including prekindergarten and Head Start, on the social and emotional outcomes of children. What’s more, the study found that the earlier a youngster is committed to daycare, the more negative the effects. As the researchers summarize:

Children who begin nonparental care earlier and in more formal settings on average had worse scores on social and behavioral measures than did children who remained in parental care longer. For instance, children who began center-based care when they were younger than 15 months, scored, on average, more than a quarter of standard deviation (SD) worse in self-control and .34 SD worse in externalizing behavior when compared with children who received parent only care.

While the researchers find the robust negative relationship between early daycare and school readiness troubling, acknowledging “a potentially detrimental outcome,” they ironically suggest that daycare “per se” may not be the problem. They stubbornly hold out hope—against all the evidence of their study and others’—that future research might uncover “aspects of early care, as it is currently delivered in the United States, that could be changed to enrich the experiences and development of infants and toddlers.” Good grief. If they were serious about the needs of little children, they would realize that enriching early childhood experiences demands more time with Mom, not less.

(Maryah Stella Fram, Jinseok Kim, and Sunny Sinha, “Early Care and Prekindergarten Care as Influences on School Readiness,” forthcoming in Journal of Family Issues.)