Monday, March 26, 2007

Mommy Wars - Installment 3,546, 790

It's that time of the year again. Take your seats, gentlemen, for here are the Mommy Gladiators! The first round will pit childless uppity women against mothers who are producing future citizens! May I have a round of applause? The second round will match the single-mothers on welfare with the upright Christian married women! Look at those godly shields and those spears! We are going to have fun watching the bloodshed. And then, gentlemen....are you ready for this? The finale! The uppity working mothers against the stay-at-home mothers, also known as the ladies who lunch. Place your bets, gentlemen! Beer will be available from the vendors all through this exciting evening.

I once wrote a parody which is summarized in the above paragraph. The point of it is sharper than the spear in a Mommy Gladiator's hand, I hope, and it is that these Mommy Wars are staged pageants which nicely leave out everybody but women of all stripes, whether mothers or not.

Now for the most recent installment in the so-called Mommy Wars: "Day-Care vs. Stay-At-Home-Mothering." A new study installment has come out in the long-term research project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development which analyzes the effects of child-care on children's development. I have been so far unable to get hold of the actual study, but the newspaper reports argue that it has found that children who spent time in day-care, even in good quality day-care, were slightly more likely to be viewed as causing disruptive behavior at school. The effect was slight and so was the second effect the study noted which was that children who went to good quality day-care had a somewhat better vocabulary even at the age of ten. The study also noted that good parenting swamped all the other effects in importance.

Can you guess which of these findings would make the newspaper headline? I'm sure you can, because this is about Mommy Wars, after all. Hence, what we read are headlines like this:

Study Links Child Care to Poor Behavior

Study links extensive child care with more aggressive behavior in school

Child Care Linked to Bad Behavior

Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care

How nurseries 'still breed aggression'

I found exactly one headline in my Googling which decided to tell us about the improved vocabulary instead. The actual study findings, assuming the popularized reports are correct, are quite a lot more muted than those headlines suggest:

The latest installment of a long-term study of child care in the United States has found that children who spent more time in center-based settings from birth through school entry have somewhat more problems with aggressive and disobedient behavior through sixth grade than children who spent less time in centers, regardless of the quality of care. However, problem behavior and teacher-child conflicts experienced by children who spent extensive time in other types of child care did not continue beyond first grade.

Notice that the findings are about center-based settings and not about child-care by someone else than the mother (as most popularizations summarized the findings)? None of the other sources I consulted bothered to make that distinction. Not a single source gave percentage figures of the children whom teachers rated as disruptive. The earlier study done at kindergarten stage had the disruptive figure at 17% for children who had been in daycare and at 9% for children who had been taken care of by the mother at home. Are the new figures the same? Closer to each other? Further away from each other? I really want to know.

Notice also that the researchers very carefully explained that the disruptive behavior they reported is well within the normal range. But that doesn't stop a headline about "nurseries breeding aggression". An alternative explanation of this phenomenon is as likely but not of headline material:

Loudell Robb, program director of the Rosemount Center in Washington, which cares for 147 children ages 5 and under at its main center and in homes, said she was not surprised that some children might have trouble making the transition from day care to school.

"At least our philosophy here is that children are given choices, to work alone or in a group, to move around," Ms. Robb said. "By first or second grade, they're expected to sit still for long periods, to form lines, not to talk to friends when they want to; their time is far more teacher-directed."

In a sense writing about any of this is almost macabre. Just think about the setup for this long-term study: to see if children suffer from being in a day-care where day-care is defined as care given by anyone else but the mother. Even fathers are but babysitters. Just think about that initial framing. Then think about what the results from such a study might mean and how they would be interpreted. Any result which suggests that day-care by others is not harmful will insult stay-at-home mothers who appear to have thrown away several years of earnings for the sake of nothing. Any result which suggests that day-care by others is harmful will insult employed mothers and will lead to calls for making day-care illegal without any financial help for families to organize something else instead.

What I'm trying to say in the above paragraph is not that studying all this wouldn't be a good thing to do. But there is no way in hell the results can ever be interpreted neutrally and in a balanced way, because the initial setup is one from the Mommy Wars arena and because almost every single person has a bet on one or the other of the fighting gladiator teams.
Note: I'm trying to get hold of the study to find out what it actually says. But I did notice an interesting exchange that took place in 2001 when the previous installment was published, an exchange which suggests that some of the researchers have bets on one side, too. I also learned that the initial choice of the families to follow didn't randomly allocate them to the home or day-care groups. This would have been ethically impossible in any case, but it causes problems for interpretation because the people who choose one care option over the other may have other things in common, things which may cause any outcomes we observe. For instance, income might vary between the studied groups or the people who chose the day-care option may have different personalities from those who chose the care-at-home option and these different personalities may be passed on to the children.