The Magazine


Dec 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 14 • By DANIELLE CRITTENDEN and DAVID FRUM
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The satanic-abuse cases remind us how fraught with emotion the whole topic of daycare is. Hundreds of thousands of parents are placing their kids in daycare centers for seven, eight, or ten hours a day. They want reassurance. They want to be told that daycare is just fine for their kids: that it promotes socialization, that it enhances their vocabulary, that their babies will be as emotionally secure among a handful of caring strangers as they would be with Mom. And indeed, there are self-described experts who will tell parents just that. They will say that, to the extent daycare is harmful, it is only because it is "bad" daycare, or because the providers lack a graduate degree in early-childhood development, or because staff turns over too frequently. This is the spin that many news stories gave to an April report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which found that prolonged time in daycare damaged the emotional bond between mothers and their children.

Audaciously, the White House seized on this study as good news. Because the study found that the harmful effects of daycare were apparently greater in some situations than in others, the first lady trumpeted it at the White House child-care conference as demonstrating the need for federal funding and regulation. The study, which comes from an arm of the federal government's National Institutes of Health, is ongoing and the results are in fact tentative and inconclusive. Still, a careful reading of it leaves in place the commonsense conclusion that non-family care of very young children is inherently risky. Equip every daycare center with floor-to- ceiling Fisher-Price geegaws, confer advanced degrees on every staffer, pay them all lavishly -- the fact remains, it is still institutional care. As Dr. Diane Fisher, a clinical psychologist and authority on child development, observed in an interview with the Independent Women's Forum, "No matter how high quality the center is, the children still take their naps in little rows of mats on the floor, children still sit in the corner sucking their thumbs and waiting for mommy."

And parents know it. Mrs. Clinton and her friends hope to fend off daycare skeptics in Congress by claiming overwhelming public demand for a national daycare system -- citing as proof the now-familiar statistic that nearly 60 percent of the mothers of preschool children work for wages. But look at working women's choices more closely, and what you see is a desperate determination by all but a handful of highly paid professional mothers to care for their children close to home.

No matter how often feminists tell us that Ozzie and Harriet are dead, the truth is women want to stay home with their young children if they possibly can. Only about one-third of the 7.2 million married women with children younger than 3 work full-time. A Roper poll of women's attitudes toward work, which has been conducted periodically since 1974, finds that a substantial majority (53 percent to 41 percent) of married women would prefer to stay home with their young children if they could -- and that this majority has been growing since 1985.

And when mothers of young children do work, married or not, they shun institutional care. There are about 19 million children under age 5 in the United States. About 10 million of those children have mothers who work. Only about 1.8 million of those children are in daycare. More than a million and a half of those children of working mothers are cared for during working hours by their grandparents, another 1.6 million are watched by their fathers, and close to one million are minded by some other relative. Parents, in other words, show a marked aversion to the sort of care that the daycare advocates want to foist on them.

Daycare advocates have responded with a swinging counterattack. A 1995 survey of "family care" -- daycare in small groups provided by relatives and neighbors in their homes -- conducted by the pro-daycare Families and Work Institute deemed only 9 percent of these settings "good." It concluded that the rest of these children would do better in institutional daycare. Why? Because friends and relatives watch children only as a "favor," while the professionals in the centers are doing it for a living. And indeed, a strong whiff of disdain for the child-rearing aptitude of ordinary people wafts all through the pro-daycare case.