Is Daycare Contagious?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

By Wray Herbert

My kids are all grown now, but way back when the first was born, there was a furious controversy brewing over the risks of putting young children into daycare outside the home. It was a highly personal clash, over fundamental values like self-sacrifice and good parenting. Some mothers (and even a few fathers) actually quit their day jobs and very publicly seized the moral high ground, while those of us with little choice in the matter hoped privately that we were not doing irreparable harm to our toddlers’ emotional well being.

There was very little comforting scientific evidence back then, neither for guilty parents nor for the sanctimonious. But there have been a lot of studies done since, and the results are almost always mixed. It appears that kids who are taken care of by strangers at an earlier age, and remain in their care longer, are indeed more aggressive and disobedient when they finally reach kindergarten. But here’s the rub: Daycare veterans also seem to be better prepared for formal schooling when they finally show up at the schoolhouse door. They have better language and thinking skills on balance.

So, is it a devil’s bargain? Do young parents of today have to choose between their offspring’s academic achievement and their emotional adjustment?

Well, that may be the wrong question as it turns out. A team of psychologists finally thought to ask what may seem like an obvious question: What happens when all the kids, with different early childhood experiences, finally reach school age, and are grouped together in their first kindergarten classes? Do the emotional and academic differences persist? Or do the stay-at-home rugrats take on the traits of their more worldly counterparts? Put another way: Are the consequences of daycare contagious?

Julia Dmitrieva and Laurence Steinberg of Temple University and Jay Belsky of London’s Birkbeck University decided to explore this question scientifically. They studied a huge sample of kindergartners, more than 3400 in almost 300 classrooms, over a year, keeping track of how much they argued and fought with other kids, as well as displays of anger and impulsivity. They also measured their academic competence, in reading and math and so forth.

When the psychologists looked closely at the kids who had logged little or no hours in daycare, the findings were interesting and clear. As reported in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, by the end of the kindergarten year these kids were basically the same as the kids with lots of daycare experience, for better and worse. That is, they caused just as many problems in the classroom, and they were equally worthy students.

What does this mean? Well, nearly two of every three American children today get some of their care giving from strangers, usually beginning before their first birthday. That means that thousands of classrooms all over the country, and all the children schooled in them, are affected by daycare, no matter what choice a parent makes for his own child. Whether that is a relief or a disappointment probably has more to do with the parent than the child.

For more insights into human nature, visit "We're Only Human . . ."

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:27 PM


At 4:03 PM , Blogger P M Prescott said...

Just a fancy way of saying that children who have been in daycare before kindergarten are more socialized than those who were raised at home, but it doesn't take long for the stay at home kids to become socialized.
Is there a study being done to compare this with home schooled childred through High School and how they fare when they get to college? It would seem that learing how to fit in and becoming socialized at that age would be much harder that at the Kindergarten level.

At 12:37 PM , Blogger Baron said...

Very interesting post.

As an editor for The Issue, a recently launched blog newspaper, I've decided to feature your blog in the Science and Health Section today. (

Great work!

Science&Health | The Issue

At 7:02 PM , Blogger Don Berg said...

I think p m prescott's comment gets it backwards. What home school kids catch up on is not socialization, but institutionalization.

Here are a few resources to see what studies show in regard to home schoolers:

ERIC Digest (U.S. Dept. of Education)

Home School Legal Defense Association

Summary attributed to Canadian HSLDA

The last lists seven conclusions (with citations) that show that home schoolers meet or exceed their peers in socialization.

In my personal experience home schoolers generally have superior social skills. (I home schooled other people's kids for about five years and have been associated with home schooling families for even longer than that.) They are better able to positively engage with people of all ages, and moderate their behavior according to their current social context.

In regards to the original post, the same point needs to be made. The effects of institutionalization are clear, institutions generate certain types of behavior in children regardless of their background. The question is whether there are institutions that are capable of moderating their negative influences and accentuating their positive influences. Another good question is if there is a certain age beyond which the negative effects of institutionalization are moderated by an individual's level of maturity.

At 3:53 AM , Blogger ed said...

Don Bergs post underscores the sensitivity that homeschoolers have about this socialization issue. However, framing the norm as institutionalization somehow leaves the terms interchangeable in such a context.
Just google homeschooling and lonliness to be clear on what the socialization issue is rooted in. I know some great families that are homeschooling, but it is hard not to feel the social vaccuum in their childrens lives, not to mention some implicit superior value system that must be protected from real life.
As for the research he pointed to regarding superior social maturity in the homeschooled; the control group of AVERAGE school children ranked in the 27th percentile for social maturity. That tells you with fairly high confidence that the "researchers" got the results they planned on.

At 5:33 PM , Blogger Don Berg said...


While there may be plenty of stories of lonely homeschoolers there are also many lonely people in our society in general. It is more likely that the more general causes of loneliness in our society are to blame for lonely children, not the fact that that they are homeschooling.

"A survey of 5,402 home schooled children revealed that, on average, they were engaged in 5.2 activities outside the home, and that 98% were involved in two or more. This substantiates a 1989 study finding that home schoolers are not socially deprived or isolated."

Your phrase about the "social vacuum" ignores this finding. Given that this is a statistical finding then there are obviously going to be some isolated kids like your friends, but that is not normal. Normal homeschooling kids are actively involved in activities outside the home.

The few studies that have been done are not enough to say that there is scientific proof that home schoolers are socially superior but they do suggest that homeschooling is at least as good as schools in regards to socialization.

I recently read Judith Rich Harris books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike. If her theory of peer group socialization is correct, then there it is even more important for parents to be choosy about their children's peer group than about their own parenting behavior. Homeschooling parents have a much better opportunity to make those kinds of choices than regular school parents.

I summarized my reflections on Harris work on my new Parenting Facts page.


Don Berg



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