Does Day Care Damage
the Learning Curve?
Q. I am
trying to decide whether to quit my job to stay home with our first child, or
keep working and just find the best quality day care I can. But should I? We
can probably survive without my full-time income, but it would be very, very
hard. What are the most important things to consider?
The child development experts
caution us to remember that all parents are different, and all children are
different, but the bottom line is, Mother (and Father) Know Best. It's best NOT
to use day care or what is called "substitute care" from birth to age 3.
That puts parents in a horrible
situation, sometimes, when a salary is crucial. But you asked. And we all agree
that doing what is best for the child's future is what we should do, regardless
of our own desires. Working out of your home, or part-time employment for you
is the obvious answer, and indeed, mothers who work part-time have been found
to be more fulfilled and happy than either mothers who work full-time, or
mothers who don't work outside the home. Call it "the best of both worlds."
The advice against "substitute care"
comes from several sources, including Dr. Burton L. White, who says he is
"disturbed" by the trend of infants and toddlers spending most of their waking
hours in the care of someone other than a member of their immediate family. His
concern is not only because of the problem of contagious diseases, but also
because of the serious, long-term emotional and psychological debilitation of
having a child perceive that there is not one consistent, primary caregiver who
loves him or her very much and is thrilled with each and every discovery, but
is NOT going to "go away."
A child's educational progress
depends on four factors, according to Dr. White: language development,
curiosity, intelligence, social development. The last one may surprise you,
since we're focusing on what a young child needs in early childhood to be a
good learner later on. But it's easier to promote a child's intelligence and language
skills than to make him or her socially effective and a pleasure to be with.
And to maximize your child's development in all four areas, you really need to
be your child's first teacher, not day care.
The key to a young child's confidence and, later on,
motivation to learn, comes from what Dr. White calls "effective
responsiveness." That means that the caregiver teaches the child to use another
person as a resource in situations he or she can't handle himself, while also
teaching the child that sometimes, you have to wait a little bit for what you
want. The superior language modeling of an adult, vs. four or five other young
children in group care, is obvious. All of these are as important as food,
water, clothing and shelter, to a young child, especially with regard to future
He wrote, "I firmly
believe that most children get a better start in life when, during the majority
of their waking hours of their first three years, they are cared for by their
parents or other nuclear family members, rather than by a substitute
There are exceptions, of course,
mostly "basket case" situations, in which one or both parents simply are not
competent. In those situations, if a "nanny" can't come to the home, or if a
grandma can't take care of the baby, Dr. White recommends a small day-care home
with no more than five children total.
But overall, Dr. White believes that parents and
grandparents are much more likely to meet a young child's developmental needs
than anyone who is being paid to do that and, no matter how caring a person,
still far more disinterested in the child than his own parents and
grandparents. Things you do for love rather than pay are what are important: putting
in the time it takes to encourage those first steps, for example, or
encouraging and satisfying a baby's curiosity by being "engaged" with the
child, down on the floor, getting new objects for him or her to manipulate, and
talking, talking, talking, to build language skills and intelligence.
Even so, he recommends that the primary caregiver, most
likely the mother, should have a few hours away from the baby every day for
mental-health purposes, especially from 15 months to 24 months, when babies
tend to be the most challenging. At that point, he recommends finding a
caregiver to come in to your home, rather than a group day-care setting, even
if it is in someone else's home. It's best to have that person's hours overlap
with the baby's nap time, to minimize your child's exposure to a "stranger"
while still keeping the baby safe while you leave the house for some R&R or
to work. He also recommends nannies in their 20s, because experience has shown
frequent conflicts with older part-time, in-home caregivers.
Dr. Burton L. White's classic parenting guide, which has been updated, The New First Three Years of Life.