Dads Against the Divorce Industry

DA*DI is devoted to reinstating the societal valuation of Marriage and the traditional, nuclear American Family, with particular emphasis on the essential role of FATHERS.

DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

Kathleen Parker: Making Sense of Things

Debunking yet another day-care study

By Kathleen Parker

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on March 7, 1999.


The myth makers are at it again: "Mothers who work outside the home during the first three years of their children's lives do not harm their youngsters' behavior, mental development or self-esteem," goes the story line of the newest study.

Critics and supporters on both sides of the child-care controversy have weighed in predictably. Working mothers relieved to hear the good news have applauded appropriately. Scholars and social scientists have nodded prophetically.

Permit me to add to the clamor: Phooey.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst -- the Berkeley of the East -- purport to fill the final gap in the child-care discussion. Previous studies had all but confirmed for guilt-ridden America that children older than 3 do fine in supervised care outside the home.

Though such findings always were qualified to mean "good" day care bolstered by "quality" time with "loving" parents, moms and dads could slap their instincts into submission, confound their guilt with statistics and drop the kidlings off at Merry Moppets without undue emotional stress. To themselves, anyway.

Always glaring us in the face, however, was the critical gap of the earliest years. What about children newborn to 3 years old? This age group posed a dilemma for working parents, as studies seemed to indicate that ages birth to 3 were kind of important. Most research to date suggested that babies need to bond with a consistent caregiver (no one is ever courageous enough to suggest a real mother) in order to feel secure in their new environment.

Finally a study emerges to tame the final guilt frontier. Not to worry, moms. Even babies don't need you. If they do have any problems -- a couple of minor negative effects emerged -- those woes disappear by ages 5 or 6. The effects were that some 4-year-olds whose mothers went to work had a tendency not to comply immediately with instructions and had slightly lower test scores.

Ignoring common sense for a moment -- a feat easily managed by most Americans -- the study, though methodologically sound, poses some difficulties for thinking people. Of those surveyed, 58 percent were minorities. Income levels ranged from $15,000 to $23,000. Researchers blended single and married mothers; in fact, half of the sample were single mothers, when only 25 percent of mothers in the general population are not married. The median intelligence quotients of the sample groups were below average.

Definitions for what constituted "work" ranged from starting four weeks after the baby arrived to three years later. Researchers blended everyone from those who worked five to 43 hours per week.

If news articles about the study had truly reflected the findings, they would have read more like this: "A new study finds that children from lower-income families whose mothers have less-than-average intelligence don't suffer serious negative consequences when their mothers work outside the home."

Even common sense could nuzzle up to that conclusion. One might be tempted to say that such children would do better in a high-quality child-care arrangement than they would staying at home.

But such does not permit a sweeping conclusion that any child from any home will be unaffected when, barely out of the womb, her mother leaves her with strangers.

Most mothers understand instinctively what's best for their children, and most do the best they can. If a mother has to work and needs day care to provide food for her children, no one can blame her wishing for reassurance that her child won't be damaged. In most cases, common sense tells us that well-loved children well-cared for will not necessarily maim small animals.

But common sense also tells us that a mother's intransigent love cannot be approximated by even the most attentive hired help. No study will ever otherwise convince me or millions of other mothers who know better.

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