Roughly three-quarters of preschool children spend a significant part of each week in the care of someone other than their parents. A few decades ago, that statistic might have sparked worries about a social revolution.
Today, it's simply a fact of life, driven by a desire or need among many parents to stay in the workforce.
But worries about what child care does for children still simmer. And a new study has fanned new life into an old debate.
The study followed the lives of more than 1,300 children from infancy through kindergarten. It was sponsored by a branch of the National Institutes of Health, and is the most extensive such research ever done.
It found that 17 percent of the children who spent more than 30 hours a week in child care were prone to aggressiveness and impatience when they reached kindergarten - a considerably higher percentage than for children with fewer hours away from their parents. The study also notes that children who attend higher-quality care programs with better-trained staff are ahead of their peers in language skills and have fewer behavior problems.
These findings are neither an indictment nor an endorsement of child care. Even among kids who spent the most time in child care, 83 percent didn't give their kindergarten teachers problems. And the study doesn't claim to prove that long hours in child care caused the problems among the other 17 percent.
Too many other factors must be taken into account: the situation at home, varying difficulty parents face in juggling work and family responsibilities, and, not least, the type of care families can find and afford.
Rather than use this study to make parents feel guilty about not staying home more with a child, policymakers should ask what can be done to upgrade the child-care profession and raise salaries higher than the $14,800 national average. What can be done to better inform parents about local child-care options? And what can government do to ease and improve the regulation of child-care centers?
Such child-care issues aren't going away. All levels of government and many businesses can do more to help parents make the best choices to find good, well-staffed child care.
Working parents, meanwhile, have the critical task of putting the time they do have with their children to good use, sharing love and values, while closely tracking any problems at the child care-center they select.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor