Day Cares

By Sandra G. Boodman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

For Jennifer Bright, the director of a medical society headquartered in Rosslyn, the decision about day care wasn't whether, but what kind. With each of her three children, the youngest of whom was born in March, Bright returned to work after a few months' maternity leave.

"My husband and I felt strongly that we wanted our children to be in a social environment," said Bright, 35, who decided against enrolling them in family day care or hiring a nanny. "We liked the oversight and accreditation of a center and thought it would be a lot more stable" than relying on one person. Her goal, she said, was finding child care she regarded as "the next best thing to me."

Bright's matter-of-fact explanation about the kind of care she wanted and the reasons why is a stark contrast to the roiling uncertainties that prevailed as recently as 15 years ago when parents, especially mothers, agonized about whether day care was acceptable in any form.

In those early years of the Mommy Wars, questions abounded: Would day care produce a generation of kids who had trouble feeling attached to their parents and were cognitively stunted as well as overly aggressive? Should mothers heed the advice of influential child development experts such as British psychologist Penelope Leach and stay home, at least for the first few years? Just how essential was a constant maternal presence in the lives of babies and young children?

Temple University developmental psychologist Nora Newcombe, whose children are now in their early 20s, vividly recalls those years when she spent "the scant time I had alone in my office worrying about child care, fretting about whether my children would grow up to feel unloved and abandoned" because she had returned to full-time work when they were babies. In an article last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Newcombe recalled turning to her profession for guidance and finding a near-total absence of studies that could "allay or confirm" her doubts.

But now, she says, there are answers. Beginning in the late 1990s, results of the federally funded study widely considered to be the gold standard of day care research began appearing. The largest and longest-running investigation into the impact of day care in the United States, the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development was launched in 1991, involved more than 1,300 children at 10 sites and was sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Among its largely reassuring findings: There were few significant differences between children cared for exclusively by their mothers and those in any form of day care. The most important predictor of children's attachment, as well as their cognitive and social development, researchers found, was the sensitivity of their mothers and the characteristics of their families, such as parental income and educational levels. The influence of these factors trumped any effects of day care.

"There's a sense that some of the big questions [about day care] have been answered," said Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which accredits day-care centers and preschools. "The concerns that you're doing a horrible thing that could harm your children are lessened."

No Longer a Minority

"In 1991 our main question was, 'Is out-of-home child care bad?' " recalled James A. Griffin, deputy chief of NICHD's Child Development and Behavior Branch and chief science officer for the national study. "The scientific evidence is that parents and families have much more influence than child-care arrangements on children."

The study found that children in higher-quality care had somewhat better language and cognitive development and were more cooperative than those in lower-quality day care; those who spent more hours in day care had somewhat more behavior problems than those who logged fewer hours; and those in higher-quality care showed better cognitive development before kindergarten.

Because the study is observational and not a controlled experiment in which children are randomly assigned to one group or another, it is impossible to determine cause and effect, researchers caution.

Although many of the scientific questions appear to be largely settled, what hasn't changed much, in Griffin's view, are the intensely emotional debates day care inspires.

"It is still a very hot-button issue," he said.

Ellen Galinsky has been an influential participant in the debate for the past two decades as president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based think tank.

Parents still worry about "whether they're doing the right thing for their children," Galinsky said. But what has changed is that mothers with children in day care "no longer feel like pioneers" as they did in the early 1990s when they were in the minority. Currently, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 50 percent of mothers of infants work, as do about 75 percent of women with school-age children.

Day care has become mainstream: In 2005, 61 percent of children younger than 6 and not in kindergarten spent time in some form of care, more than a third in centers.

"People now know kids who've grown up and had employed mothers," Galinsky said, allowing real-life glimpses of the day-care generation.

"It was never a simple matter, but I do think the research has brought more clarity to the complexity," she added. "But I don't think the guilt and questions will ever change -- or that the studies have found all the answers."

Griffin and other experts say that researchers would like to know more about the impact of care on children younger than 2, who need the most intensive and expensive services, which are hardest to find.

NAEYC's Willer agrees. "Child care continues to be highly undercapitalized and families are really responsible for the cost," she said. "We still need to improve the quality of child care available to most families."

Better Than a Nanny?

Parents wait months -- or longer -- for a place at St. Anthony's Day School in Alexandria, one of 125 child-care centers and preschools in Virginia accredited by the NAEYC. One of the factors that distinguishes quality care from the merely custodial, experts say, is curriculum. The best programs emphasize the use of language, foster a sense of curiosity and a love of learning, and provide children with frequent, warm interactions with supportive adults.

Unlike many area centers, St. Anthony's accepts infants beginning at 3 months. The for-profit school, founded 10 years ago by Patricia Hall, a former Roman Catholic nun turned foreign service officer, is housed in a squat, orange-brick building that was once a warehouse, sandwiched between a dry cleaner and a luxury condo development in the north end of Old Town. The school is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Most of its 92 children live in the Alexandria area.

Many parents say they are drawn to its instruction in art, classical music, computers and Spanish, the language native to most of its 25-member staff. Many of those staffers, all women, have been at the school five years, according to director Janet Cochran, who has worked at the school since its inception.

Starting salaries for teachers hover around $25,000; classroom assistants who don't have college degrees make $10,000 less than that, not much more than minimum wage. After a year, employees are eligible for health insurance and begin accruing personal leave. High turnover is a problem at many day-care centers, experts say, and child-care workers are among the lowest paid of any profession.

Weekly costs range from $255 for preschoolers to $325 for infants (there is a discount for siblings), which makes St. Anthony's considerably less expensive than hiring a full-time nanny, which can range from $400 to $700 per week in the Washington area.

Parents are invited to drop by anytime and can watch their children on the Internet via closed-circuit TV cameras mounted in every classroom; a video feed plays continuously in Cochran's office. "I can see if a child's having a meltdown" and offer assistance if necessary, said Cochran, who is called "Miss Janet" and projects an unflappable, businesslike patience.

Although St. Anthony's has a Christian orientation, it accepts children of all faiths. "We don't get into a lot of doctrine," Cochran said, adding that the school has included several Jewish families. Classroom staff wear red smocks and students wear red and blue uniforms (T-shirts and shorts in the summer), "so all the children feel the same, and it helps us ID them" on outings, such as daily trips to the park across the street, Cochran said.

Nearly all St. Anthony's students are white and comfortably middle-class. Cochran said that the school has sponsored three children on scholarship and that officials are seeking to expand its racial and ethnic diversity.

The clean, spacious classrooms; the quiet; and the sense of order appealed to Jennifer Bright when she toured St. Anthony's several years ago looking for a spot for her firstborn son, then an infant.

"In every room there was classical music playing, and it seemed happy and the whole environment seemed positive," she recalled.

"One center I saw had six swings lined up in the infant room, which told me my kid was going to be in one 90 percent of the time," she said. "At St. Anthony's there was a lot of interaction with staff and kids."

Each week one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the 3-year-old classroom is "Show and Share," in which students bring in an object to discuss with the class.

On one recent Friday, lead teacher Claudia Melendez squeezed her eyes shut and plunged her arm into a large blue plastic bin, extracting the first toy.

Arrayed around her in a circle on the floor were a dozen 3-year-olds, who stopped wriggling momentarily while they watched to see whose item would be first.

Melendez, who has worked at St. Anthony's for six years and commutes from her home in Germantown, plucked an Elmo's Hot Tomato toy from the bin. Its owner proudly announced his name to the group, identified his prized toy and then passed it around, watching somewhat warily as his classmates giggled and squeezed it.

"Nice sharing," Melendez told him, plopping the toy back into the bin. She turned to quickly break up a brief scuffle before extracting the next object, a glittery purse.

In Cochran's view, one advantage of day care is socialization. "If they're home by themselves with a nanny, they don't get that good problem solving," she said.

Bright agrees. At a recent kindergarten orientation at her neighborhood public school, her oldest son, a St. Anthony's graduate, marched up to the teacher and introduced himself while most of his classmates hung back or looked fearful.

"I was very proud," Bright said.

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