How the Media Perpetuate Women's Fears of Being a Bad Mother
The media has a toxic gift for the mothers of America -- the ongoing demonization of day care based on skewed science, the exaggeration of "harm" and the near invisibility of the good news about non-maternal care. Judging by past performance, none of this is about to disappear very soon.
I've been tracing the day care saga for over a decade for my book "Selling Anxiety; How the News Media Scare Women." For the media it's been a sad tale of and infants who can't attach to their moms, bullying toddlers and disruptive little kids, a seemingly unstoppable narrative.
Much of this began in the late 1980s when researchers pondered the question of whether infant day care interfered with the mother-child bond, known as attachment. The federal National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) set up a large, expensive and very well designed study of children from infancy onward, following some 1,110 children at ten sites around the country.
The initial reports were very encouraging. At five and 14 months, the researchers found, infants in day care were securely attached to their mothers. There was virtually no difference in attachment whether children were at home, cared for by a mother or father, or in day care or cared for by a relative.
You'd have thought that this would be huge news, after all the scare stories about day care. It wasn't. A week after the findings were announced, I did a Lexis search and found only a dozen references to the NICHD study (including a very detailed New York Times piece). But six of those -- fully half -- were written by myself and Dr. Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis. The silence of the media on the good news about day care was stunning.
I compared that to references in Lexis to the book Children First, by British psychologist Penelope Leach, that claimed that women should not work until their children were eight years old because of concern over attachment disorder. I found nearly three hundred references to Leach in the media.
Then, in 2001 came another report: children in high-quality care scored higher on tests of language, memory and other skills than did children of stay-at-home mothers or children in lower-quality day care.
But what got all the headlines? The news that 17 percent of children in day care more than 30 hours per week were said to be more aggressive and disobedient than children who were in day care for fewer hours. That finding resulted in a national spate of headlines like this one: "Connecting the dots between day care and bullies" (The Denver Post).
Parents worried that their tots would grow up to be criminals or Columbine-like killers. But the vast majority of kids in day care (83 percent) were not aggressive, and the behavior of the minority was not really alarming. Preschoolers who, bragged, showed off, talked too much or argued could get lumped into the "aggressive" category, along with kids who fought, threatened or bullied other kids.
As Berkeley psychologist Philip Cowan pointed out, "Perhaps the low aggressive youngsters in these studies haven't had enough experience in large groups to know how to take care of themselves appropriately. That is, it may be that the low aggression kids have a problem."
Flash forward to March of 2007. Once again, a new analysis of the NICHD data was out, and once again, there was good and "bad" news. The good news from the newest analysis of a major study of day care is that kids who were in high-quality day care have better vocabulary skills than other kids.The not-so-good news was that children who had been in day care for more than a year had a tendency to display "disruptive" behavior in class through sixth grade.
Undoubtedly, a chill; ran up parents' spines. Was little Paul or Pammy destined for a life of juvenile delinquency, school failure, social dysfunction, etc. etc.? Not at all.
"Disruptive behavior" may sound frightening, but, in fact, as the researchers pointed out, the incidence of such behavior was slight, and well within the normal range for healthy kids. They also found that parents have a far more powerful impact on children than being in day care does. .
It may well be that because kids in day care sometimes had to compete for attention, they learned to speak up and argue more. And they bring this tendency with them into elementary school and beyond. That fact could have its pluses and minuses.
But the overall message of all the research we have is that high quality day care does not harm children, and in fact may give them an early boost in cognitive abilities and socialization. A very small minority of kids may have problems, but these can be over-ridden by parental attention and care. And since new studies show that mothers are spending mote time with their kids today than mothers did 20 years ago, and fathers are also increasing their hours with kids, it's time to retire -- for good -- the day care horror stories.