That worked well for about two years, but by the time Nora was born, we decided to hire a part-time nanny so I could finish a degree of my own. When Nora was one and Greta and I were starting new jobs in a new state, both kids entered full-time day care, and that was our child-care arrangement until they started kindergarten.
Naturally, at every step along the way, we wondered whether we were making the right parenting decisions. We liked their nanny and their day-care center, but wouldn’t it be better for the kids to be cared for full-time by their own parents? At that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of research pointing one way or another. The definitive child-care study can probably never be done: Families would have to be randomly assigned to day-care centers or parent care for years, and then the impact of the assignments wouldn’t be known until the children reached adulthood. Even then, you wouldn’t know if the effects were due to particular parenting or day-care practices, or to the day-care versus parent-care assignment.
Realistically, the next best thing you can do is to follow children from birth to adulthood, and see if kids who happened to have been placed in day care (or with nannies, or grandparents, or some other arrangement) ended up better- or worse-off than those cared for by their mothers. Indeed, such a study was launched by the National Institute of Child Health and Development in the early 1990s. The results have been gradually trickling in as the children in the study aged. The most recent installment, published in 2007, covers kids through the sixth grade.
The study follows over 1,000 children who were randomly selected on their day of birth from ten U.S. hospitals. Researchers checked in intermittently with the families over the next dozen years, assessing both their family situation and the child care provided. Then when the kids entered school, they tracked their progress, got teacher reports on their social behavior, and continued to monitor the quality of their parenting (in addition to whether the kids were in after-school care programs).
A particularly interesting part of the study was the way parenting quality was measured. Every two years, age-appropriate tasks were assigned to the mother-child pairs: working through an Etch-a-Sketch maze, planning an itinerary, and even designing a bungee-jump for an egg, with the goal of stopping it 2 inches or less from a table top. The activities were videotaped and carefully coded for effective parenting skills.
So did time spent in day-care affect school performance? We can’t say for sure: remember, this study just measures correlations, and a correlation can’t tell us if one factor causes another. But there are some interesting correlations. There is a small, but significant correlation between quality of care received in a child-care center and vocabulary scores. Interestingly, this correlation continues to be significant all the way through the fifth grade. There’s also a significant correlation between number of hours spent in child care and “externalizing” behaviors such as misbehaving in school or hitting others, but this diminishes with age. Externalizing is significantly correlated with the proportion of child care provided by day-care centers, and this correlation does extend all the way through to the sixth grade.
But the factor that most strongly predicted both academic success and good social skills throughout the study period was quality of parenting. If the mother-child relationship in those short video assignments demonstrated good parenting skills, then the child was more likely to have good reading, math, and vocabulary scores and have healthier social skills. But even here, we must be careful not to assign parenting as the cause: It’s possible that parents simply get along better with kids who are naturally brighter and friendlier.
But let’s suppose the correlations are due to causation: good parenting makes good kids, and day-care makes for very slightly smarter, but also slightly less well-behaved kids. What does that tell us about whether or not to put kids in day care? On an individual basis, not much. A parent may be faced with a decision to put her child in day care or move to a cheaper house in a worse neighborhood. A small probability that the child will be slightly more aggressive in ten years probably doesn’t play into it much. But, the study authors suggest, it might make a difference on a larger, community-based scale. If ever-larger numbers of kids are placed in ever-more-inadequate day-care facilities, then schools and playgrounds could be adversely affected, which could mean a worse future for everyone.
One thing does seem clear from these results: both high-quality child-care centers and good parenting skills are associated with better results for kids. Perhaps future studies should focus more on how to make both of those things even better.
Belsky, J., Vandell, D., Burchinal, M., Clarke-Stewart, K., McCartney, K., & Owen, M. (2007). Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care? Child Development, 78 (2), 681-701 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01021.x