TORONTO — Vancouver demographer David Baxter has an explanation for falling crime rates across Canada and the United States: Many of today's high schoolers and 20-somethings have grown up sharing their cookies at day care.
Young people are "better socialized" than previous generations, he says, because of all kinds of early childhood group experiences in structured environments, including day care.
Those in traditionally crime-prone age brackets are more peer-oriented, he says; they are less likely to be rugged individualists, lone wolves, and tempted into crime or antisocial behavior.
"I call it the triumph of day-care kids over the Marlboro Man," says Mr. Baxter, director of the Urban Futures Institute in Vancouver.
To be sure, cookie-sharing as crime prevention is a controversial finding. Baxter's views come at a time when
Canadians are looking at a budget surplus and debating the merits of a national child-care program as part of a universal early childhood development program. (Americans, think universal healthcare.)
Although crime rates have been falling in this country for several years, and US rates are at their lowest in decades, plenty of psychologists and early-childhood education experts are prepared to dispute Baxter's views.
But certain kinds of high-quality day care have been shown to make the kind of difference in young people's lives that would result in lower crime rates. Many early-childhood education experts point to the curriculum developed by the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Mich. [see accompanying story], as the gold standard in this area.
Learning to decide
Long-term studies of "graduates" (particularly children of lower-income families) of this approach, which emphasizes development of children's decisionmaking skills, have shown long-term benefits measured in terms of young people's rates of school success, family formation, and ability to stay out of trouble with the law.
Peter Greenwood of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., an author of a study called "Investing in Children," is bullish on the idea that money spent on quality day care and other "interventions" pays off in public savings - fewer young criminals to be incarcerated, etc. A High/Scope Educational Research study shows a $7.16 payoff for every dollar invested in quality day care.
More day care, less TV
But, says Dr. Greenwood, "The problem with day care as an explanation for lower crime rates is that not many kids are in those programs." He adds that too much of the socialization of children today falls to "nannies" like TV.
Still, the American Psychological Association is very much interested in knowing more about how day-care experiences relate to patterns of violence down the line. "Violence is learned behavior," says Jacqueline Gentry, director of public interest initiatives for the APA, "and violence prevention can be learned." The APA is working with the National Association for the Education of Young Children on research in this area. "This is clearly a developmental trajectory that we care about a lot."
Mom, dad quality time
Other experts are unconvinced that any day-care program, however good, can substitute for one-on-one time with parents. "My own research on the effects of substitute child care," says Dennis Moore, a clinical psychologist in Newtown, Pa., "shows that as the amount ... increased, the amount of problems in preschool increased. This finding was independent of such factors as the quality or the setting of the substitute care, he adds. For a child to be in the care of anyone other than parents or grandparents - more than an hour a day for each year of life is asking for trouble. A three-year-old in day care three hours a day, five days a week, is on the line of risking "significantly greater behavior problems" than he would be in the care of his parents, Dr. Moore says.
Carole Rayburn, a psychologist in Silver Spring, Md., says she sees young children in day care and other settings "bonding" all right, but in the face of "the atrocities kids come into contact with - like stray bullets - "it's fear that binds them together. It's a binding together as in a war or national emergency," although she adds, "It's better than whistling in the dark on your lonesome."
Within this relatively bleak landscape, though, she suggests, "I think there might be more consideration of something touching on spirituality and the religious. Even agnostics seem to recognize there's something out there that other people relate to, something that's guiding their behavior ... that might translate into more moral behavior."
Dr. Rayburn expresses concern that the trouble with peer-oriented young people is that if there isn't a genuine inclusiveness, outsiders end up marginalized. "The leftovers chum together," she notes, with potentially disastrous results, as recent school shootings have shown.
Demographer Baxter shares her concern: When most kids are well plugged into their social groups, the few loners are all the more isolated. Baxter cites the young people of Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., as an example: Two desperate loners who caused untold grief at a place where "the vast majority were well-scrubbed kids who play football," as Baxter puts it.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society