A calm voice amid the noisy child-care debate

Ever since day care took its controversial place on the American social landscape, working parents have wondered anxiously, Is child care good or bad?

Countless studies and millions of dollars later, the answer remains far from definitive. Researchers often equivocate, saying, "It depends."

Now two more studies, released Wednesday, are certain to steam up the summer air with hot new debates.

The first one links child care (including "care by fathers, relatives, nannies, family child-care providers, and child-care centers") to "assertive, noncompliant, and aggressive behaviors." Research by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development finds that the more time children spend in child care from birth to 4-1/2, the more adults rate them as disobedient and less likely to get along with others when they enter kindergarten.

As usual, there is a caveat: The vast majority of children, researchers emphasize, remain within the normal range of behavior. It is not possible, they add, "to make firm statements about whether child-care experiences cause increases in problem behavior." Like other researchers, they emphasize the importance of putting the findings in perspective.

In fact, they find that family characteristics influence children's behavior more than day care does. Children whose parents are better educated and have more income, and whose mothers are more sensitive to their needs, show more competent social behavior.

Since 1991, 27 researchers conducting the NICHD study have tracked the development of more than 1,000 children across the country. The cost? $100 million.

The second study suggests that full-day, center-based care may be challenging for many young children. Researchers at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development report that children produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone released during stress, in child-care settings than they do at home.

Here again, a cautionary note appears. Researchers are unclear whether the higher levels of the stress-related hormone relate to the strain of being away from parents or to the social challenge of interacting with other children.

What's a working parent to do?

Julie Shields, a parental-leave activist and attorney who has studied the latest data, wants to update the discussion. Rather than continue the anguished debate on the same old terms - should mothers work or stay home? - she suggests that child development experts could encourage fathers to take on more child-care responsibilities.

Shared parenting, Ms. Shields calls it, explaining that it offers one way to reduce the number of hours children spend in day care. A trend toward greater workplace flexibility gives many couples opportunities to change their arrangements if they want to, she believes. She and her husband have always alternated the care of their children.

"The focus should be on having choices," says Shields, author of "How to Avoid the Mommy Trap." "We need to provide better options for families who want to put in the time [at home] in the early years, as well as for those who use child care."

Working parents are here to stay. So is child care. As headlines and talk shows consider the implications of these latest studies, perhaps those on both sides of the contentious issue can start envisioning new ways to care for the youngest generation.

That way, the next $100 million can be spent not just on studies, however useful, but on tangible benefits: upgrading child-care centers, improving the education and training of staff, and above all increasing the meager paychecks of devoted teachers, who leave the field in droves because they can't afford to stay.

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