Sunday, January 22, 2012

Child Development and Day Care Centers

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on child development. I came home from the library last week with four books by various psychologists on the topic. You ask, "why?".

Well, first, I'm a bit of a nerd and like to read books on various and sundry topics (I also read labels on the food and medicine and just about everything else). Secondly, I'm a mom so I figure it is a good idea to know something about child development. After all, I am raising a developing child. It seems akin to reading a direction manual for a tool before you use it so you know what it's supposed to do and when. Thirdly, I was thinking about social development in the context of preschool and school for my daughter someday. For instance, I had read somewhere previously that a child under three really does not benefit much at all (socially, anyway) from playgroups and preschool because he just literally is not developed enough to be capable of playing with other kids.

I have found out some interesting things as I've skimmed through my books. For instance, each of the authors (all doctors and psychologists) agrees that a baby under a year old needs a consistent, constant caregiver to thrive emotionally and socially. (The first year is the most critical, but, of course, it is not good to have that caregiver disappear when the child turns a year old!) Ideally, a child should have that same caregiver for at least the first three years. Where can we find a caregiver who will stick around that long? I know! How about a mom or dad?

I have always had a rather strong conviction that mamas should be home with their little ones. To me, it just did not make intuitive sense that a small child, (and especially an infant) born so innocent and ignorant and dependent, should have his care shared amongst several people, especially if they are people the parents do not personally know extremely well. After all, a baby is learning and growing at an unbelievable rate. He's learning from his environment and the people around him. I'm not talking about academics, obviously. A little baby isn't learning letters and numbers yet. Instead, he is learning about facial expressions, speech, and tones of voice and he's learning how to communicate his needs. He communicates his own needs instinctively and needs someone who knows what he means to respond to him! Given all this, it just makes sense to me that the person taking care of the child is not merely one who can stick a bottle in his mouth and change his diaper, but is someone who loves him dearly and will have the time and interest to hug and hold and talk to him through the day.

Just before I had my daughter, I was working a job where I traveled to several daycares and taught small 'enrichment' classes for an hour or two. I got to spend many hours in several different daycares this way and the experience only served to confirm my conviction! Although there were several very good teachers, there were also many impatient and unkind ones. One center, in particular, was just chaotic. Yelling teachers, screaming kids, fights, and a few coping and invisible 'good' kids were the order of the day! Just walking in the door stressed me out. That is not to mention the teachers who gossiped with each other about all manner of issues from their personal lives over the heads of the many, many children under their care. I just didn't understand how it could be good for these precious little three-year-olds to be in this environment all day. Poor little kids!

As I was reading through my stack of library books, I realized that the social and emotional development of little ones is not only extremely critical for their lifelong health and happiness, but it is largely formed before the age of three. All of the authors agreed that a baby's future emotional health and ability to have caring, loving, intimate relationships was highly correlated to how well he was cared for and responded to as a little child. A baby who is held a lot, quickly responded to when he cries, and talked to and sang to frequently, is a much more secure, responsive, and caring child as he grows and becomes an adult.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a professor at George Washington Medical School says in the book he coauthored called The Irreducible Needs of Children:

"The worst thing for a baby is not having a loving person in her life or being uncertain about that person. If one is missing entirely, for example, in an institutional setting, or if a caregiver is ambivalent or inconsistent, the need we're defining here is not satisfied. The worst situation is not having a relationship or being unsure. Children will cling to an abusing parent rather than being moved to an unknown situation."

Obviously, the way children are responded to is critical. All their little concerns and emotions are very real and need to be handled in a wise and intelligent manner. It doesn't matter if it is the hunger pangs of a 6 week old or the disappointment of a lost toy for a 3-year-old, the child needs to learn that he is safe and that there is someone there to help him handle his overwhelming feelings. (I'm not talking about spoiling or coddling a child. I'm just talking about validating her and teaching her to 'feel' and 'deal'.) The reward for this investment of time and energy and patience is a child and adult who can handle his negative emotions (anger, disappointment, etc) maturely (but not bury them or pretend they don't exist) and who is able to feel and share his positive emotions with others in a loving, selfless, empathetic way.

Since this training takes time, energy, knowledge, wisdom, and love, I wonder about daycare centers, especially very busy ones or ones with a high turnover (which most of them have!). How on earth will you know if the workers are responding to and caring for your baby sensitively and lovingly all day? Even if the child has an excellent caregiver, what if that caregiver has three other babies to care for also, or is only there for part of the day? This can hardly be the ideal situation for little babies and young toddlers to be in! Little ones don't need to learn to 'tough it out' at this age. They need to learn that they are absolutely safe, secure, and loved. Once that is established, they can learn to tough it out. Much later. Years and years later.

This same author and doctor says:
"In a number of day care centers, when the children are mobile, I see a lot of emotionally hungry children. Children come up to any new adult and hang on. Some of that reaching out to any mother is simply reaching out to anyone who will give them some attention...If parents have options and are able to provide high-quality care themselves, I find it best not to have infants or toddlers (in the first two years) in full time, 30-40-plus-hour-a-week day care. Current research and my own clinical observations suggest that most day-care centers do not provide high-quality care."

Now, I'm the first person to be skeptical of what I call psycho-babble and many of these authors (including the above quoted one) probably hold moral, religious, and world views that I do not agree with. In fact, Dr. Greenspan and his coauthor advocate for MORE government intervention to make daycares better (a solution not nearly as satisfactory, in my opinion, as better parent education would be). They even say that abortion is okay by them because no child deserves to be born into the neglect and abuse they have seen! (This saddened me very much. These doctors have seen such neglect, ignorance, and selfishness that they have taken what I would consider to be an extremely cynical view. One said abortion is not a matter of women's choice, but of the baby's choice to not be born into such neglect!).

In spite of these differences, my own observations and my common sense and intuition tell me that they are right about loving and dedicated care being best for little ones. It makes no sense to put a little child, dependent on the care and love of a parent, in the care of daycare staff! No offense to these staff, but they do not have the love, time, dedication, and knowledge that a mother or father should have!

Another very interesting point I learned was that just because a child is friendly and social or doesn't cry at day care does NOT mean that it is the best thing for her. Kids cope. They cling to whoever is there, even if that person is unkind to them. Tiny babies quickly learn to stop crying because they learn that it doesn't do anything. Nobody is there for them. Do they 'get over it'? Sure, but to their detriment! In another book, The Science of Parenting the author, Margot Sunderland, cites several articles from professional journals when she says:

"Some parents think their child is fine at daycare, but her stress hormone levels may be very high. We know that a child can look fine and not be crying, yet still be who didn't cry for their Mommy when she left the room had equally high levels of stress hormones to those who did. In other words, the one-year-olds had learned at this tender age to bottle up their feelings. This is troubling because when small children do not appear to be upset, they are very unlikely to get the comfort they need."

Poor kids! Every child needs and deserves the loving, one-on-one, dedicated care of a family member. They were NOT created to be 'cared for' en masse by a rotation of strangers. Mothers are the most natural people to give this dedicated care. They should be holding, talking to, singing to, and looking at their babies all through the day, not just on evenings and weekends! There is a tiny window of time for that baby to learn that he is safe and secure and loved. Moms need to be doing it. If they absolutely, really can not do it themselves, they should do their VERY best to make sure the child has a a single, careful, trusted person to provide this love in their place. Dad, grandma, aunt, good friend-it should be someone the child will be able to bond to and who will not leave them or disappear.

My girl, happy to have daddy home a lot too!

As you can see, my reading, my experience, my intuition, and my common sense all tell me that putting a little child in group care for most of their days is just not a good idea. However, millions of moms do it. What is more, many of these moms do not absolutely, positively need to! Did you know that the more educated a mom is, the most likely she is to put her kids in the care of someone else? Also, did you know that the highest income bracket is the one with the MOST kids in daycare centers? This tells me that these moms are working for reasons other than absolute necessity. A study by the U.S Census Bureau showed that, in 2008, 82% of moms with Bachelor's degrees who were working while pregnant, returned to work within their child's first year of life. Nearly 75% returned to work before the baby was 6 months old! Not all of these kids were put in group care, but a good chunk of them were (as in, millions). Check out the study here:

How can such a practice be so prevalent when it is obviously not in the child's best interest? Well, I'm going to finish this looooonnnnnggggg blog finally and continue the topic soon, but my thought is that moms don't KNOW it is bad for their babies, they make wrong assumptions about how necessary it is for them to go back to work, or they just turn a blind eye because they want to go back to work.

Think about it. I'll be back with more of my own thoughts later.

P.S. Again, I do not mean to offend any of the wonderful people who work in day care centers. I know that there are many loving and caring people working with kids in centers! My goal here is not to offend anyone, but only to raise awareness that group care is NOT as good for little ones as their own, loving parents would be.


  1. GREAT post, Rebecca. It was really interesting to know that you couldn't tell a child's stress level by the amount of or lack of crying. How sad! I think there are at least two reasons as to why, unfortunately, the daycare trend continues: 1. "I can't make it on one income." (Not true, though, in many cases.) 2. "It's healthy for the child." (I feel like I've seen numerous studies published and reported lately that promote daycare centers! The media supports this and blinds parents into believing the studies are well done, when in fact, they seem to have pulled their "conclusion" from thin air.)

    I am going to bookmark this post and return to it on days that I need encouragement and when I need to be reminded that the sacrifice (if you can even call it that) we make is so worth it.

    1. I'm glad it encouraged you, Kristen! I agree that it is too bad that so many moms think they can't make it on one income (when they probably could with some knowledge, discipline, and sacrifice) or that it is good for the child to be away from them so much. Too bad :( Meanwhile, these poor kids barely see their parents!
      Being home all the time sure can feel like a sacrifice sometimes, but it certainly is worth it if we remember how good it is for our babies to have us! Besides, it really is just a fraction of the years of our lives!

  2. Rebecca, What a great article you wrote! It's an encouragment to me, and I hope others who somedays "wish" they could be anywhere but home with the kiddos. I thank God that those days are few and far between and that my kids are right next to me all day. It is not without sacrifices, mostly selfish adult sacrifices, that we personally live on one income. After reading this article, I am once again reminded of why we have chosen to sacrifice the extras, for our children. I am so thankful for the kids God has given me, and feel very blessed to be home with them. It's funny though, even when I send my kids with other family members, I always have that heartbreaking thought of, "Will they go to them as soon as they are upset, sad, angry or hurt?" But with my husband I never doubt he will be there for them at any point in the day. There is something to be said for the parental bond...