Studies have shown that children in day care for a substantial amount of time are more aggressive. Whether aggressive behavior can be blamed on spending too much time in day care or whether the behavior is caused by “broken homes” is a question some may ask.
During the first three years of life children’s brain connections are forming. When a child is with his own capable, nurturing, mother (or one loving caretaker) for most of his days his experiences include one-on-one attention, a lot of personal interaction, the focused talk his mother directs at him, and any number of other activities that can only happen when a mother and her child spend most of their days together. With my babies I always felt as if they were new computers that needed the files from an old computer (me) uploaded as soon as possible in order that the “new computer” be able to do the things and have the information the “old computer” did.
It isn’t enough to teach the ABC’s and color and numbers to a baby, and it isn’t enough to mention a few rules about nice behavior a few times during an evening and on Saturdays. Children who act aggressively are frustrated and/or socially immature. When they don’t have that substantial time with their mother, learning to be socially more mature and emotionally more mature and sure they become less skilled in settings like day care or school. Usually, by the time most children begin kindergarten they have reached a sufficient level of emotional/social maturity to be able to refrain from acting aggressively. Children of day-care age can just be too young to be able to use that level of self-control; but, more importantly, while they spend so much time in day care they are not spending the time that babies/toddlers need to spend with a skilled and loving mother in order to develop the social skills and reasoning ability needed for a child not to be aggressive.
Teaching, say, a five-year-old that hitting is not acceptable can usually be done by telling him once (maybe twice). A two-year-old who acts aggressively does it out of frustration and the inability to control himself or else not knowing how to deal with a difficult situation. Children who spend most of their times with a mother, who teaches in subtle ways, often have more ability to be reasonable (even when they’re young). The two-year-old who is mature enough to understand that he can play with a toy when it is his turn is less likely to act aggressively than the two-year-old who can’t understand that. This is not to say that day care centers don’t have their little ones who have better reasoning ability than others, but there may be a higher number of children with less developed skills than not simply because some children are in day care from the time they are infants. Also, however, even the most reasonable two-year-old is likely to retaliate if a playmate throws something at him, and in the first three years of life whatever behaviors children exhibit may be reinforced as those behaviors are repeated. In other words, even the child who wouldn’t otherwise lean toward acting aggressively may learn that this is the way things are done in the day care setting.
Children in day-care settings must learn to take care of themselves or else to withdraw. There is also the factor that children who experience too many unpleasant episodes at day care may wish to be with their mothers, and not being happy is not good for young children’s emotional wellbeing.
When considering the impact of the home, it is true that there are parents who don’t know how to nurture their child in a way that helps them develop the skills needed to be more emotionally or socially mature. These parents can be married. They may be very young. They may be single. They may be divorced. While there may be a higher rate of young, single, parents who don’t have sufficient parenting skills, it is entirely possible for the babies of even young, single, mothers to have a very nurturing home life. Mature single parents, married parents or divorced parents are often entirely capable of providing a solid nurturing environment for their children; by the same token, none of these groups is immune to poor parenting skills. In fact, there are times when very educated parents lack understanding of children and parenting (no matter how many child development books they may read).
The point is that some children in day care may come from excellent parents, while others may not. Day care centers generally used by a higher socio-economic class could (possibly) have a higher percentage of children with skilled parents, and centers geared toward the underprivileged may have a higher number of children who lack skills; but even the best day care center in the world cannot offer a child what his mother can simply because of the setting and the numbers of children and the fact that the best care-providers are still not the child’s own mother.
Also, when a mother decides to stay home with her child (and often put aside her own career plans) it is sometimes because she believes she is the one to best be able to provide what her baby needs. Mothers who believe there child will receive equally good care at a day care facility are mothers who are not as aware of what mothers of babies and toddlers can or should provide in terms of intellectual and emotional development. While, obviously, there are mothers who have no choice but to work and leave their children in day care, there is that percentage of day care children with mothers who don’t recognize the drawbacks of day care and advantages of mom-care, and this would mean that there is at least some percentage of day care children with mothers who don’t quite understand the importance of all the one-on-one, close interaction and learning that goes on when a mother cares for her own child. In other words, there is at least the chance that it may not as much be that children come from “broken” homes (and “broken” can apply to even married couples who have dysfunction), but could instead be that good mothers who just don’t quite realize what mothers can do for their child’s intellectual, social, and emotional development may have children with behavior problems, and day care children come from these mothers as well as from questionable mothers and forced-to-work mothers.
All the experiences in a baby’s or toddler’s life create a type of blueprint in the form of brain connections that result from those experiences. Those brain connections aren’t just involved with learning to read or learning to build blocks. Brain connections are in play in absolutely everything. When a child’s brain does not “wire” correctly it can affect any number of skills, as well as his brain’s response to stress throughout the rest of his life. Improper “wiring” can also affect a person’s immune system for the rest of his life. Even when a child is enjoying play at a nice day care center there can be stress in his day just because of the setting or the time he spends away from home and his mother. Stress can affect brain chemicals, and it would seem to be common sense that one would not want their baby or toddler living and developing brain connections “under the influence” of stress hormones for too long.
It may be easier and more comfortable for parents with children in day care to write off higher rates of aggressiveness in toddlers in day care centers as the result of troubled or bad homes. Acknowledging what may be the very cold, hard, reality that day care centers may negatively affect children would mean shaking up a lot of worlds (and an industry too) and/or a lot of guilt. There is a reason schools now have raised the kindergarten entrance age, and that reason is that even four-year-olds and five-year-olds are not always ready for the kindergarten setting.
Two-year-olds are not generally ready to deal with other two-year-olds for too long or to be one of a group of children getting attention for a care-giver. More importantly, for every hour that they spend in a setting for which they aren’t necessarily ready young children miss out on an hour in a setting in which they just may have the chance to develop optimally.
Competent child care professionals and teachers usually are quite skilled at getting even children who have not been taught to behave to behave while they’re in day care or school settings. There may a child or two who is a problem, but in general even children from not-so-ideal homes go along with the group. Even the best child care professional, however, cannot stop the minute-to-minute emotional responses that each of six or ten children has to a setting that is not the most conducive to meeting the emotional needs of toddlers.
An ongoing study begun in the 1990’s by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has shown a correlation between behavior problems in children once they’re in elementary school and beyond and day care centers. The study has also, however, shown some positive effects on some cognitive skills. It has been noted, however, that these are only correlations and the degree of negative or positive effects could differ among day care centers of varying quality. It has been noted, however, that because some communities may have more lower quality centers there is the chance that the findings actually understate the problem in some cases. Hara Estroff Marano, writing for MSN Health and Fitness, describes this study and specific problem areas in her Ask the Experts piece, “The Day-Care Kids – How time spent in a center can affect a child’s development”.
The NICHD’s study takes into account family income and quality of care, as well as number of hours spent in day care. The correlation between a higher number of hours in day care and behavior problems would seem to make it fairly clear that the problem lies with day care and not with the family.