A number of past studies have found that children reared in daycare are more likely to develop aggressive tendencies than those cared for by their parents. However, a study released in April--the largest ever conducted on child care and development--has found that regardless of whether children are looked after by a daycare employee, a nanny or even a grandmother, aggression, disobedience and defiance increase with the number of hours in non-parental care. Since then, the study's researchers have battled publicly over the data's interpretation. Meanwhile, the question being ignored is: "What is so important about parents?"
"I'm not surprised one bit about the daycare findings," states former kindergarten teacher and mother of two, Phyllis Batchelor of Bragg Creek, Alta., 30 miles southwest of Calgary. "I am surprised about the difference between mothers and grandmothers." Ms. Batchelor speculates that a relative may have concerns about raising the child in a way that differs from the parents' wishes. "It may relate to self-confidence," she suggests. "A woman I know told her mother-in-law the vocabulary she couldn't use with the children. For example, she was not to use the word 'good,' because kids just 'are.'"
Ms. Batchelor also speculates that a grandmother's fear of becoming estranged from her grandchildren may lead her to be more tentative, "whereas a mother isn't tentative at all. She just marches right in and disciplines the children." What the study possibly indicates, she suggests, is that children can sense when the caregiver is tentative. "No matter how we parent, kids know we mean well because we're bonded in a way others rarely are."
"Kids aren't stupid; they know who their primary caregiver is," agrees the founder of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education, Mark Genuis. "Aunts or grandparents are not in the same authoritative position. Some take that role, but the parent doesn't have the right to expect it of them." The crucial element which the parental bond, whether biological or adoptive, gives a child, Mr. Genuis says, is the sense of being safe and secure. "They are less clingy and more independent. When I step on solid ground, I'm more ready to take the next step as opposed to when I'm walking in six feet of snow." When an infant or young child is separated from his parents for a certain time on a regular basis, that "secure base" is threatened. "There is an increased risk of a variety of maladaptive behaviour without the security of that emotional bond."
As for the researchers' infighting, conservative Dr. Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College in London, England, has been accused of overemphasizing the negative findings regarding daycare. He has been quoted as replying that 70% of the other 27 researchers have the reverse bias. "It's almost like there's no scientific conscience...Everyone's worried about making working mothers feel guilty. What about two years ago, when we made stay-at-home mothers feel bad?"
The government-sponsored research conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, has tracked 1,300 children since 1991. It found that by the time they reached kindergarten, 17% of those who spent 30 or more hours in child care scored at the upper levels, but still within the normal range, for aggression ("gets in lots of fights";"demands must be met immediately"), as compared to 5% of those who spent 10 hours or less. The study also found that good child care, including better quality daycare--"a rich verbal environment" rather than more hours watching television--is associated with higher math scores, larger vocabularies and increased memory skills.