The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Generates the Statistics
Once again, a lot of very smart scientists with significant institutional backing have spent a lot of time and a lot of money coming up with brainless conclusions and age-old solutions.
In this case, after spending millions of dollars over 10 years in 10 different cities, a team of well-credentialed researchers backed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have “discovered” that children who spend over 30 hours per week in day care are more likely than children who spend less than 10 hours a week with someone “other than their mother” to be at the upper range of normal when it comes to aggressive behavior.
The fix-it for this fearful fact is, of course, Mom. If more Moms stayed home with their kids, more kids would be better behaved, say the researchers. The fact that we need researchers to do this bit of knee-jerk finger-pointing only tells us how much we're willing to pay these days for expert-generated, science-cloaked myth – in this case, the misogynistic idea that whatever is wrong with our kids is Mom's fault. Of course, there is a “positive” side to day care in that kids who spend more preschool hours away from their Moms seem to have better language skills and are more kindergarten-ready when that time comes. In that case, Moms are to blame for selfishly keeping their kids at home when they could be off at preschool fine-tuning their kindergarten-readiness skills.
Either way, it is mothers' choices that cause their children to come out dumb or mean – an idea that is, to put it simply, dumb and mean. Just look around at how dumb and mean so many of our institutions are – our mass media, our welfare policies, our school systems, our work life, the consumer pressures we face – and then explain how the most underpaid, overworked, and least respected among us (that is, mothers) merit the most responsibility for the fact that some kids “talk too much” and occasionally “get in fights.”
Let's look at what the research says.
Children who stay home with their Moms have a 6 percent chance of being somewhat more aggressive while their counterparts in day care have a 17 percent chance of same. Interestingly, the behavior of the day care kids exactly “mirrors what we see in the population at large,” according to Deborah Vandell, one of the researchers on the project (Boston Globe, April 26, 2001). So, kids in day care are simply getting a head start acting the way they'll act for the rest of their lives. Maybe something about our day cares, schools, work places, etc. causes 17 percent of us to be a little on edge, aggressive, even cruel. If those numbers are a problem, what should we do? Stay at home with Mom forever in order for 11 percent of the population to not develop these admittedly “normal” attributes? Do adults who live with their mothers exhibit fewer bullying behaviors? If they did, would that represent a solution to the problem? Of course not. But when we see the “normal” population-wide statistics played out among preschoolers, we use it as an opportunity to tell Mom to STAY HOME!
This kind of guilt-tripping coercion is important because – Surprise! Surprise! -- most Moms don't want to stay home with children. Three out of four said they would rather work. Add most Moms' desires to the low wages most families generate, and you find that the stay-at-home-Mom solution is not possible. Even if it meant that preschoolers would be somewhat less aggressive, any gains in that direction would flitter away as soon as they joined the non-Mom-centered population, also known as kindergarten, followed by the rest of their lives.
So, thus far the research tells us that Moms should ignore their inclinations and in all likelihood their financial needs, and stay at home with their preschoolers in order for approximately 11 percent of those offspring to temporarily be marginally better behaved.
Speaking anecdotally and as a non-expert, mandates like these are enough to make a Mom develop a twitch. My own personal study shows that 99 percent of the Moms who read this study develop anxiety in at least the upper normal range.
The trade-off that the research poses is questionable at best. Time Magazine (April 30, 2001) distills the latest day care controversy down to the following question: What if day care makes our children smarter – and meaner? With a huge complicated question shrunk down to a single trade-off, I imagine millions of Time readers pondering the choice between having dumb kids that don't talk back and smart kids that do.
But must we really view our children and our choices through such a narrow pinpoint of a lens?
Not that we shouldn't address aggression in children. By all means, we should. But it says something about the state of public debate that the latest day care study has focused our attention on the choices of individual Moms rather than generated some discussion about the nature of our institutions. It's a bit more challenging to consider the possibility that our institutions foster tension, anger, or some collection of emotions that elevate aggression. Is there anything about the norms of our society that reward “talking too much” and “getting into fights”? Do we ever consider publicly, debate amongst ourselves, or even privately envision what behaviors we would like to nurture – not just in our children but amongst ourselves as well? Must we accept day care as it is, with no changes, and parenting as it is, with no changes, and choose between them? And are our imaginations so limited that we can't conceive of communities, work cultures, and networks of care and support that foster a cooperative spirit among children -- and meet Mom's needs as well?