Daycare: What’s the Best Public Policy?

July 1, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’m back to the article in National Affairs I began on yesterday (National Affairs, Summer, 2016). It calls into serious question the wisdom of parents’ having kids spend too much time in daycare. Yesterday’s post discussed some of the detrimental effects of doing so, which are largely behavioral, not cognitive. They include greater emotional problems that sometimes last well into the child’s teen years plus significantly greater tendency toward crime during those same years.

The NA article then goes into what may provide the biological basis for those behaviors, both in daycare and long afterward. The hormone cortisol is called the “stress hormone” because it’s excreted into the bloodstream in times of stress. It allows us to respond to stressors, but too much cortisol, particularly at an early age, is associated with problems with physical and emotional well-being.

Elevated cortisol levels are often interpreted as boding ill for physical and emotional health…

Moreover, in research on animals, "there is strong evidence that early experiences shape the reactivity and regulation of neurobiological systems underlying fear, anxiety, and stress reactivity." Daily exposure to even relatively minor stressors in infant animals leads to adult animals who exhibit heightened fearfulness and greater vulnerability to stressors.

Kids in daycare, again, particularly toddlers, can be stressed by the experience and that can lead to problems.

Professors Harriet Vermeer and Marinus van IJzendoorn conducted a meta-analysis of nine daycare studies examining trajectories in the stress hormone cortisol. Their article concludes:

Our main finding was that at daycare children display higher cortisol levels compared to the home setting. Diurnal patterns revealed significant increases from morning to afternoon, but at daycare only….Age appeared to be the most significant moderator of this relation. It was shown that the effect of daycare attendance on cortisol excretion was especially notable in children younger than 36 months. We speculate that children in center daycare show elevated cortisol levels because of their stressful interactions in a group setting.

Other studies have made similar findings.

A group of researchers at the University of Minnesota studied 55 children in full-day daycare centers. They monitored the levels of cortisol in children’s saliva when they spent the day at the daycare center and when they spent the day at home. The authors found a "significant effect of setting (home vs. child care)," with cortisol rising significantly when children were in daycare, while no similar increase was seen among children at home. Toddlers appeared particularly vulnerable, as the authors found: "Among the infants (3-16 months), 35% showed a rise in cortisol across the child care day, whereas among the toddlers (16-38 months), 71% showed a rise."

These findings are particularly important given the one-sided view of daycare that’s permeated the news media over the past 10 years or so. That in turn has affected the thoughts of policy makers on the subject of how to entice parents into working longer and harder outside the home. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s not just talking heads like Anne-Marie Slaughter who are calling for massive government spending on daycare, but President Obama and soon-to-be-Democratic-presidential-nominee Hillary Clinton as well.

As is so often the case when it comes to parenting, We the People seem to know better.

The Washington Post opened an August 2015 article with the following finding: "More than three-quarters of mothers and half of fathers in the United States say they’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs or quit to tend to their kids, according to a new Washington Post poll." Readers are invited to view these facts as evidence of a crisis rather than a description of parents making work-family decisions that best meet their needs and those of their children.

Mothers and fathers value time spent with their families, and they think the time spent together is good for their children’s well-being. They are also skeptical about daycare. For example, a 2014 Pew survey found that 60% of Americans think it is best for children if one parent stays home. And a March 2013 Pew study found that just 16% of parents say having a mother who works full-time is best for children. In 2000, Public Agenda surveyed parents with children five and under, and 63% disagreed with the following statement: "A top-notch day care center can provide care as good as what a child would get from a stay-at-home parent." Public Agenda also found that

80% of young mothers ages 18-29 — women who grew up when mothers worked outside the home and nonparental child care became more commonplace — say that they themselves would prefer to stay at home to care for their young children rather than work full-time.

Those parents who “think the time spent together is good for their children’s well-being” and who are “skeptical about daycare” seem to be right.

During periods of rapid brain development, contact with parents prevents elevations in cortisol, and this has been interpreted as nature’s way of protecting the developing brain from the potentially deleterious effects of this steroid.

None of this is to say that even moderate exposure to daycare is necessarily detrimental to any given child’s well-being. But children under about three years should have more parental time and comparatively little time in daycare. Given the fact that many parents have to work, how can that best be accomplished? The authors of the National Affairs article suggest de-incentivizing placement of kids in daycare and encouraging tax credits for parents who stay home to care for very young children.

Robert Stein has argued persuasively in these pages that parents currently receive too little tax relief, given the expenses that they incur in raising a child and the importance of that investment for society. He estimates that the average middle-class household gets about a $1,550 tax reduction for each child, which is a small fraction of the considerable expenses associated with childrearing. A substantial increase in the dependent-child tax credit would help parents across the board, regardless of the type of child-care arrangement they prefer. This financial relief may make it possible for some parents working full-time to switch to part-time work or even stay home, while also providing financial assistance to those paying for daycare.

Such tax incentives of course aren’t free, but, if it’s a question of tax credits that encourage parental care or subsidies that encourage daycare, the choice looks to be an easy one. Obviously, some combination of each would be a good idea.

Now, people like Anne-Marie Slaughter will throw up their hands and scream at the idea of tax credits to encourage parental care. That’s because they believe that we as a society must bend heaven and earth to coerce mothers into doing what they don’t want to do, i.e. dive into the corporate rat race. Slaughter, et al, are firmly convinced that nothing short of a 50/50 split of all adult duties between men and women is necessary, although why they think so they never explain. It seems to be simply an article of faith that browbeating women into going to work and doing the same to men to spend more time with their kids is the sine qua non of a fair society.

It’s not. In both the long and short terms, it’ll be much easier to accept the choices people make than to spend huge sums of money trying to make them do what they don’t want to do. There’s nothing sinister about men being principally resource providers and women being principally nurturers of children. Indeed, that’s what humans have done for countless millennia and it’s enabled us to be a highly successful species.

Where we went off the rails is in our belief that, because we once discouraged women who wanted to from putting career ahead of motherhood, that any change in our current drive to force them into the workplace must necessarily be a reversion to the status quo ante. Needless to say, that’s not what I’m arguing for. All that’s necessary is to (a) clear all structural/institutional barriers from the paths of women who put career first and men who put family first and (b) make sure our culture honors careerist women and homemaker men equally. And of course men and women opting for traditional sex roles should be equally valued.

Needless to say, an important part of (a) above would be to establish equal parenting as the norm when parents divorce. The idea that a parent who brings home the bacon is in some way less of a parent and of less value to the child than the parent who changes diapers is factually incorrect and sexist to boot.

Doing that would inevitably result in more men in the workplace and more women in the home than people like Slaughter would prefer, but as long as adults are making free choices and not being penalized for doing so, I ask, “what’s the problem?”




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#daycare, #children’swell-being, #cortisol, #taxcredits

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