By ANDREW WHITEHOUSE
About two months ago, a very important piece of child development research was published with little fanfare.
The research examined whether the amount of time a child spends in child care has an impact on their development.
To say that this is a polarising topic is to understate the feelings that child care can conjure in some people. Eye-bulging, vein-popping, Jerry Springer-style arguments are known to break out when a working mother dares to utter those two forbidden ‘c’ words. But more on that later.
This study investigated 75,000 children from Norway. Mothers were asked to report how often their children went to child care at 18 months of age, and then again at 36 months of age. Mothers also completed a questionnaire regarding their child’s behaviour. The researchers were particularly interested in what are known as ‘externalising problems’, which are those behaviours that we typically associate with a child ‘acting out’ (e.g., attention and aggression problems).
To cut to the chase, no matter which way the researchers examined the amount of time that children spent in child care, there was very little evidence that this caused behavioural problems. This is by far the largest and perhaps also the most rigorous study that has been conducted in this area, and I believe the findings are of huge importance to all parents.
The idea that child care may be ‘bad’ for children first gained prominence in the 1980s. The view was based on studies conducted in the US, which found that more than 20 hours per week of non-parental child care may pose a risk for infant-parent bonding, and for the psychological and behavioural adjustment of the developing child.
What this Norwegian study adds into the mix is a vastly different socio-political context to the US. Consider just two Norwegian policies:
- Near universal access to child centre care
- Regulated child-care quality standards;
The key ingredient here is the quality of child care. There is a world of difference between good and bad day care. And just like poor teaching and lousy parenting, low-quality child care can absolutely lead to behavioural problems among children. There’s no question about that.
However, the Norwegian policies not only ensure that high-quality child care is the norm, but also that these standards of care are available to all parents – both wealthy and poor. Good child care – the kind that can provide a wonderful play and learning environment for children – is available to almost every parent.