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February 8th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A new study is the latest in a long line to find that putting young children in daycare can be harmful to their emotional well-being.  Read about it here (New Zealand Herald, 2/8/12).

The report Who Cares? Mothers, Daycare and Child Wellbeing in New Zealand – commissioned by Family First New Zealand and prepared by British psychologist Aric Sigman – looks at the potential impacts of separating a child from their parent in the first few years of life.

The 30-page report, which drew on previously published research from around the world, said attending daycare, and the subsequent separation from parents, was a significant source of stress for many children.

Specifically, children in daycare have elevated levels of the hormone cortisol which indicates the level of stress an individual is undergoing.  Sigman’s study is a meta-analysis of many other studies around the world.  It falls into line with his previous work suggesting that sending children to daycare at an early age could have a harmful impact on early development and later health.

[The study] said 70 to 80 per cent of children in centre-based daycare had increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which could be harmful to the child’s immune system.

Predictably, Sigman’s work has met with protest from those who see it as an attack on women.

Carolyn Savage, president of the Federation of Business and Professional Women, said the report focussed on the harms to children but ignored the educational and social benefits of early childhood education.

It also unfairly singled out women because daycare was a decision both parents had to make.

“I think that’s one of the worst things about it … I think it’s a little bit sexist, because it hasn’t actually noted what fathers could be bringing to the table.”

Women were already judged for deciding to send their children to daycare, Ms Savage said.

“This report says you shouldn’t be sending your children to daycare and this is the impact you’re going to have. But there’s already a number of women out there that suffer guilt for doing so.”

In truth, Sigman’s work is about daycare and its effects on children.  If the researcher has ever said, or indicated in any way, that mothers’ sending children to daycare is detrimental but fathers’ doing so is not, I’ve never seen it.  And of course he’s said no such thing.

Meanwhile Savage seems to suggest that it’s wrong for Sigman to tell the truth that many studies worldwide agree on because it might make women uncomfortable with their choices.  Plainly, that’s bunk.  Mothers and fathers alike need to have accurate, unbiased information about how best to raise their children.  If they do, they can make the best decisions possible under their circumstances; if they don’t, they can’t.  Whatever guilt they may feel about their decisions is for them to deal with as adults.  To suggest, as Savage does, that Sigman and others should keep their mouths shut so that mothers can raise their children in ignorance disgracefully denigrates women and potentially harms children.

As is true with so much social science about the welfare of children, the studies showing the harmful effects of daycare on children aren’t likely to be well-received.  That’s because there’s a certain orthodoxy already in place that the science on daycare contradicts.  As Bob McCroskie of Families First New Zealand noted,

He thought the report would be received “like a lead balloon” because it went against the ideology that has been underpinning the push to get children into daycare.

“[In the past] it’s all been about getting mothers back to work and the benefits of daycare in terms of outcomes, but there’s been no corresponding weight given to some of the research that’s coming through on the effects of long periods of childcare,” he said.

“The industry talks about outcomes and school readiness but it doesn’t talk anything about what the kids actually go through while they’re at childcare.”

Sigman’s study draws on that of about 100 other researchers worldwide.

The fact is that some parents can’t do without daycare.  Their schedules don’t permit them to shift off parenting from one to the other and they have no alternatives like grandparents on whom to rely for care.  That’s unavoidable in some families. 

But what the study really targets - whether it says so or not - is single parenting, whether it’s arrived at by unmarried childbearing or divorce.  The incidence of both has skyrocketed over the past 40 years or so and we were originally told about both that the kids would be fine.  Well, four decades into the experiment, we know to a certainty that the kids aren’t fine at all.  They’re stressed and suffering a host of ills that come directly from the loss of the two-biological-parent family.  Unmarried childbearing and divorce may suit the desires of adults, but they harm children.

And for the most part, daycare is an enabler of both.  It’s a necessity as long as adults can’t manage to behave responsibly toward their children.  By the same token, if adults were to take children’s welfare seriously enough to only have children if they’re married and not get divorced except in the case of greatest need, then much daycare would shrivel on the vine.

Of course adults probably aren’t going to change their behavior any time soon.  Until they do, we should thank researchers like Aric Sigman for at least giving us the facts about the consequences of our bad decisions.

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