Is Day Care Truly Bad for Kids? News headlines recently referred to researching findings revealing day care's ill effects on children. But a conversation with the researcher reveals that the study's findings may have been misrepresented in the media.
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Is Day Care Truly Bad for Kids?

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Is Day Care Truly Bad for Kids?

Is Day Care Truly Bad for Kids?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Madeleine, I want to hear this wine-fueled interview coming up with rocker, Iggy Pop. But I will have to wait a few moments - for this.

BRAND: First, the mainstream media gave us working parents yet another reason to feel guilty this week. Front page stories told us that the most in depth study yet has found that daycare is causing children to behave badly.

Slate.com's Emily Bazelon, also a working parent, looked behind the headlines, she went to the source - the author of the study - and she came away with a different conclusion. And Emily is here now, to share with us that conclusion. Hi, Emily.

Ms. EMILY BAZELON (Senior Editor, Slate.com): Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, before we get to that, tell us first about the original coverage of the study and what the study had found.

Ms. BAZELON: Right. So the headlines were pretty alarmist this week. They said things like childcare leads to more behavior problems, and daycare kids have problems later in life. And that was based on the latest findings from this $200-million study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which, at first glance, appeared to show that kids who spend time in daycare are, even in the sixth grade - so several years later - at risk of being reported by their teachers as having higher levels of behavior problems.

BRAND: So you thought, hmm, this smells a little fishy, so you contacted the study's author, Margaret Burchinal, and what did she tell you?

Ms. BAZELON: She told me that she felt like the study authors hadn't quite communicated their message the way they'd intended to. And that, in fact, there were no findings that there were any behavior problems above average for kids who spent one to two years in daycare. And that was the norm and the semblance to the norm for the country. Most kids start daycare at the age of three or four, and so they're in daycare for one or two years before kindergarten. So that was the first part that was different from the way in which it was reported.

BRAND: And daycare is being the same as preschool?

Ms. BAZELON: Yeah, I think daycare, preschool - these terms kind of run together. Daycare generally means care that goes beyond the morning. But in this particular study, they talked about more than 10 hours a week of childcare outside the home.

BRAND: Right. Okay, so what about for kids who spend more than one to two years in daycare or preschool?

Ms. BAZELON: For kids who spends three or four years in preschool or daycare before the age of four-and-a-half, there is a slight up tick in reported behavior problems in sixth grade. And it's really slight - we're talking average score on this measure that the researchers used, as 50 kids who spend three years getting 51.4 on that measure and kids who spends four years getting 52.

But there was another wrinkle and that was that when I asked Burchinal, the author of the study, to go back and look at the quality of the childcare the kids received who were in daycare for three or four years, she found that their daycare centers were of lower quality than the other kids. And it was only a slight correlation, a slight negative correlation between spending more time and having lower quality. But then the up tick in problem behavior is slight, too.

And so that made me wonder if the lower quality of the care for the kids who were in longer was, you know, perhaps accounting for the slight up tick in behavior problems later on.

BRAND: And the lower quality - why, why lower quality if you spend more time in daycare?

Ms. BAZELON: Well, Burchinal's theory, and this make sense to me, is that there is very little really, really good daycare for infants and toddlers in this country. And so, if you are a child who's in daycare for three or four years, you're more likely to be expose to slightly less good childcare as an infant or toddler. Now, of course, there are exceptions to that rule. But, in general, it's really hard to take excellent care of infants and toddlers. It cost more money. You need more experienced staff to juggle the babies and all their needs. And so Burchinal at least speculates that that might be accounting for what we're seeing.

BRAND: And also infants need more one-on-one care, obviously, than kids who can run around and play with other kids.

Ms. BAZELON: Exactly. And there are some daycare staff who are just wonderful at, you know, being able to give the different kids the one-on-one attention they need. But it's a skill and it takes experience and, you know, obviously, these are jobs that are not paid particularly well and so often people who are good at them move on to other things.

BRAND: So Emily, when you read articles like these, you, as a working parent, do you get angry? Do you feel guilty? What do you think?

Ms. BAZELON: I used to get angry, and I used to feel a little bit guilty. At this point, maybe because my kids are little older, I feel more bemused by the whole thing. I feel like I know what the headline is going to say, and I know that, you know, the TV stations are going to run with it and there's going to be a lot of, sort of, chest thumping. And I'm skeptical that it really, you know, the study is purport to show what everyone says they do. And I also feel like it's really important to hang on to the idea that all that matters to your child is your child's experience. The statistics and the averages don't matter.

BRAND: Emily, thank you very much.

Ms. BAZELON: Thank you.

BRAND: And you can read Emily's article on daycare at Slate.com

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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