Childcare : what the science says

Great, so if you were to write a science based, research backed rebuttal to this chapter alone, it would recommend what exactly? No daycare? Daycare in particular family instances at particular ages?

I ask knowing full well I likely won’t be able to meet the ideal, but I personally would prefer to know what that ideal is to attempt to get closer to it.

And more…

Dear reader, please stop reading

Science and Authority

Center Care

Summary of effects

  • For ages 3+, there are few downsides and substantial advantages. Daycare boosts both cognitive skills (literacy and mathematics) and social skills as measured in the first few years at school.
  • For age 2, the findings are more mixed. This is the best age to start in terms of boosting later cognitive skills, but children are more likely to act out and be angry when they reach school.
  • For age 1, childcare may improve cognitive skills a little, though certainly less than starting at age 2. But it also has even larger negative effects on later behavior in school. There is no boost to social skills.
  • For children aged 0–12 months, daycare likely damages cognitive skills and children’s later behavior at school is even worse. There is no boost to social skills.

If there’s one thing you take away from this post, please let it be this: age makes a huge difference.

Age matters. Hours matter. Income matters.

Cognition vs Behavior

  • Parents likely impact cognitive skills more than daycare, but daycare impacts behavior somewhat more than parents. So e.g. parents can improve children’s literacy by reading to them at home, but it’s much harder to fix behavioral problems caused by daycare.
  • Cognitive boosts probably fade out, although it’s not completely settled; skills needed to regulate behavior persist through life.

Social Skills

From the first textbook on play I had at hand.

Cortisol and Stress

From a meta-analysis of high-quality centers (Vermeer 2006). Note the broken y-axis.

Quality

Effect Sizes

  • Even with the boost from that nutritional program, many children will grow up to be short. (Just, on average, an inch less short than they would have been!) Similarly, even with extensive exposure to daycare, many children will grow up without behavioral problems or later mental health issues. Daycare and the other factors shift the odds; they don’t guarantee bad outcomes.
  • A small shift in the average makes a big difference to the tail. If everyone was an inch taller, there’d be three times as many American men over 6'4". The same applies here: the ‘inch’ of worse behavior caused by long hours in childcare results in triple the number of children with ‘elevated aggression’.
  • Remember that average effects are measured. Some children will be much more affected and some less or not at all. Also remember research shows parents are bad at seeing the behavioral effects of daycare on their own children.

Other forms of childcare

  • All forms of relative care seem to be as good as each other. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers — doesn’t matter. Indeed, there are large studies comparing single fathers and single mothers and the differences are minimal.
  • Time with professional childminders (a.k.a. in-home daycare providers) can cause later behavioral problems, but much less so than daycare centers. Childminders do not however boost cognitive skills of older children as half-days in daycare do. (Usual caveat: such boosts probably fade out, whereas behavioral effects have long-term consequences.)
  • How do nannies (who come into your home) compare to professional childminders (in their own homes)? Research is sparse, but it seems that nannies may cause fewer emotional problems than childminders, and (like childminders) do not give cognitive boosts.

Further Reading

Universal Childcare

Quebec

  • The paper picks up something that is specifically happening to preschool children, ramping up from 1996 to 2001. Nothing happens to older children, which makes it unlikely that it’s e.g. the Quebec economy.
  • Quality standards were increased in 1996 as part of the program roll-out. Overall quality was actually pretty bad, but still ‘comparable to the quality of care provided in many other countries’. 25% of the centers were good quality, which is about double the figure for the US.
  • Economists Steven Lehrer and Mike Kottelenberg heard about the results and flat-out didn’t believe them. So they replicated them. Lehrer writes:
From a public draft of Baker et al, 2019. The different lines show show crime rates go up in cohorts with more exposure to the universal childcare system. The lowest solid line is for children who were not exposed to the system.
  • Most strikingly, the Quebec crime rate goes up by about 20% when the children who were in daycare become teenagers. That figure seems to shock people, but as far as we can tell it’s real. Here’s a way of looking at it. If I told you crime rates were higher among children who grew up in more deprived families, would you be surprised? Typical daycare centers have some similar characteristics. There’s less attention per child, more noise, people are more stressed, etc.. So you get the same effects on brain development and the long-run consequences of that, including in crime rates.
  • The Quebec program covered ages 0–4; the negative findings were disproportionately driven by the youngest children. Hours seem to be long. And the program looks to have mainly changed the behaviour of advantaged families. So it’s not surprising that the outcome was so bad. (Age matters. Hours matter. Income matters.)

Boston

  • The study was only looking at 4-year-olds.
  • Hours were relatively short; at most six hours a day (30 hours a week).
  • The intake was ‘relatively disadvantaged with high shares of non-white and low-income students’.

Scandinavia

Policy

  • You sometimes hear that investing in early childhood has huge returns. (The ‘Heckman Equation’.) That’s specifically true for low income children. It’s based on an analysis of two high-quality interventions (1962 Perry Preschool and 1972 Abecedarian). The 200 or so children in those projects were all poor, and nearly all African American.
  • Hours matter. There’s a big difference between being in a center 8am–6pm (50 hours a week) and being in a center 9am-3pm (30 hours a week).
  • Above all else, age matters. Journalists keep missing this. If you muddle together all the evidence from studies on 12-month-olds and studies on 4-year-olds, it looks like the evidence on childcare is mixed. But that’s a completely wrongheaded thing to do.
  • Parents who need to can still spend the money on professional childcare. But because fewer people will use center care (‘reduced demand’), the cost of center care will go down, so parents using it will end up with cash in hand.
  • For other parents, the money will mean that they, or relatives, are able to look after their babies themselves.

Conclusion

Great, so if you were to write a science based, research backed rebuttal to this chapter alone, it would recommend what exactly? No daycare? Daycare in particular family instances at particular ages?

I ask knowing full well I likely won’t be able to meet the ideal, but I personally would prefer to know what that ideal is to attempt to get closer to it.

  • The best behavioral and cognitive outcomes come from starting half-days in daycare around 2½. Switching to full days provides no benefits and long days may worsen behavior until around 4.
  • Before 2½, any relative as carer gives the best outcomes. Failing that, nannies are probably better than childminders (in-home daycare) and both are certainly better than daycare centers.
  • All of the negative effects of non-relative childcare are more pronounced for younger children; childcare choices in the first 12 months make the most difference, as children are particularly dependent on their carers then.

Key science, with sources. Minus bad statistics. Minus shaky methodology. Minus politicisation, left or right.

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criticalscience

criticalscience

Key science, with sources. Minus bad statistics. Minus shaky methodology. Minus politicisation, left or right.

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