Media's eye on moms

Few people had any idea that the latest child-care study would cause such a stir.

It is the kind of guilt-inducing news no working parent wants to hear: the claim that children who spend long hours in child care may be more aggressive by the time they reach kindergarten than those who spend most of their time in their mothers' care.

But there, splashed across the front page of major newspapers last month, were alarmist headlines trumpeting these findings from a 10-year, 10-city study involving 1,300 preschoolers.

"Day care linked to aggression," warned USA Today. "A lot of child care now could create a bully later," stated The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

But wait. The same study also found that good child care can be beneficial, strengthening children's cognitive skills and language ability. Yet that finding was largely missing from the early news coverage. Among big-city papers, only The Dallas Morning News, that first day, acknowledged both parts of the research. Its front-page headline read, " 'Smart and Nasty': Study: Child Care Breeds Aggression, Enhances Abilities").

The dark headlines moderated the following day, April 20. "Child-care experts reassure parents," the Chicago Sun-Times noted, while the Orlando Sentinel cautioned, "Don't overreact to day-care study, experts say." Subsequent coverage of the findings and the controversy they generated produced an onslaught of editorials, commentaries, letters to the editor, and interviews with experts and mothers. The study even entered popular culture, becoming fodder for comic strips such as Dennis the Menace and Mallard Fillmore.

Now, researchers and family advocates are trying to determine why the initial coverage created such a furor. They also want to find ways to help journalists and parents correctly interpret research findings.

"We didn't think our findings were controversial," says Sarah Friedman, one of the lead investigators on the study. "They just needed to be understood fully and in context."

The Study of Early Child Care, as the project is called, tracks children from birth through fifth grade. It is funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers presented preliminary findings in Minneapolis last month at a meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development. An hour-long media conference call drew 22 journalists. Dr. Friedman and Jay Belsky, another researcher, were each given three minutes to summarize their findings, followed by questions from reporters.

"That's not much time to tell a complex story," says Friedman. "Reporting about scientific findings is complex. Even when people have the scientific published paper in front of them, if you're not a scientist working in that particular area, it's not easy to understand all the nuances."

The most controversial part of the report finds that 17 percent of young children who spend 30 or more hours a week in child care exhibit more aggression than those who spend less than 10 hours outside their mother's care.

"In the normal [overall] population of children, that 17 percent is what you find all the time," says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. "All those behaviors are within the normal range. This is not clinical pathology we're talking about."

Negative vs. positive spin

Why are seemingly negative findings on child care so much more likely to grab headlines than positive findings?

"The media coverage has been reflective of where we are as a society," says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. "The knee-jerk reaction is that moms should be home. That really isn't a realistic solution."

Another researcher on the study, Kathleen McCartney of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, also attributes some of the tone of the coverage to Americans' "profound ambivalence" about child care and maternal employment. This, she says, creates great interest in child-care research.

She says she feared the study "would be covered in the press in the way that it was, in that the supposed bad-news story would be reported, and the good-news story would get short shrift. I knew we were presenting preliminary findings that hadn't been through peer review."

Calling child care "a hot-button issue," Professor Zigler says: "Nobody wants to read a good-news story, it seems." He notes that he received a hundred calls about this study, but only half a dozen about peer-reviewed research published May 8 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing the positive impact of quality child care for at-risk children.

In the NICHD study, vocabulary contributed to the media confusion. "When you use a catchy word like aggression, it's very worrisome," says Friedman. "There are words that mean one thing to the scientist who is working on the problem and mean something else in everyday language."

Developers of the study, she explains, classified a number of behavioral traits under "aggression." These include "demanding a lot of attention," "being easily jealous," and "wanting to have things immediately." Professor McCartney adds two more: "bragging," and "talking a lot."

Some of those traits have more to do with being assertive than aggressive, McCartney says.

Some critics fault researchers for releasing material too soon. "There's an unwritten rule among scholars that you do not report non-peer-reviewed material," says Dr. Zigler.

Researchers have also come under criticism for not giving journalists embargoed copies of the report, although Friedman e-mailed study results to reporters who asked for it. Journalists did have access to a summary on the society's website, which perhaps helped to set the tone for media coverage. The first headline read: "Children spending more time in child care show more behavior problems at four and a half." The second, in smaller type, stated: "Preschoolers who experienced higher-quality care have better intellectual and language skills."

"Reporters working against quick deadlines who may not have an in-depth knowledge of child care, and who are given very little information, it was predictable they would do the story the way they did," says Betty Holcomb, a former editor at Working Mother magazine. "Here you have a very knowledgeable team of researchers. But rather than give a press release and some time for the media to digest very complicated issues, there was spur-of-the-moment information."

Ms. Holcomb, author of "Not Guilty: The Good News for Working Mothers," adds: "They had a result which showed that kids in child care behaved pretty much like any normal bunch of kids. The contrast they found was between kids in child care and the ones who had been basically home with Mom." Only 6 percent of children in the latter group showed signs of aggressive behavior.

Those at-home children may still be shy, suggests Janellen Huttenlocher of Chicago, a specialist in the development of preschool children. "After they're in school in group settings for a while, they may express some aggression themselves," she says.

That kind of uncertainty about cause and effect points up the challenges inherent in studying and reporting on child care.

"Most research investigates what happens when families place their children in child care, without any controls or manipulation of who selects which kinds of arrangements," explains John Love, co-director of a national project evaluating Early Head Start programs, who took part in the media conference call.

In the NICHD study, he says - even with statistical analyses to adjust for differences in families who used various kinds of care - "we can't tell for sure whether it's the family or the child care that produces the aggressiveness - or produces the improved school achievement, for that matter."

McCartney adds, "It could be that children with more behavior problems are challenging to their parents and are placed in child care for more hours. It could be that aggression causes more hours [in day care], rather than more hours causing aggression."

What could have been done differently

As the dust settles, those involved in this study are adding up the lessons learned. For researchers, the media flap serves as a reminder to provide press releases and reports so journalists can study them.

"If we had had time to do a press release, the press conference would have been different," says McCartney.

Friedman urges journalists to read the studies, then talk to investigators to clarify the findings. Reporters, Zigler says, also need to ask if studies are peer-reviewed.

And parents? "It's good to be skeptical when you read about alarming findings, and to wait for the follow-up stories," says McCartney. Adds Friedman: "As a parent, I would probably look at my child and ask, 'Is my child OK?' If my child seems all right to me, I wouldn't worry."

She notes that reporters who wrote later stories gave a more balanced view. Parenting magazines are also planning articles, she says. "The word will go out in time. The accurate reporting will be there."

Zigler, pointing out that 58 percent of mothers of babies under the age of 1 are in the workforce, says: "Our job isn't to dissuade mothers from using child care by sending up these horror stories. Our real task is to do a public-education campaign with parents to get quality care."

Rather than criticizing working mothers, directly or indirectly, Ms. Willer says, Americans need to recognize that child care is "a societal issue, and move beyond individual guilt or individual blame."

Adds Professor Huttenlocher of the University of Chicago: "It isn't a question of whether there's going to be day care, because people's lives today require it. The question is one of how good day care is going to be."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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