Archive for Monday, April 2, 2007

The 1% day care difference

April 2, 2007


Thank heavens for the media. How else would we make sense of our lives?

Take parenting. Had it not been for the media, I'd never have thought to scrutinize my children's behavior so closely. But like every parent in America, I couldn't miss last week's blockbuster parenting news, broken by The New York Times: "Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care."

Ah ha! That explained everything.

At breakfast this week, I scrutinized my little darlings. Each had spent time in day care. And, sad to say, each had apparently acquired a capacity for Poor Behavior.

My 2 1/2-year-old, for instance, yesterday insisted on pouring her own maple syrup onto her pancakes. Rivulets, streams, lakes of syrup everywhere! She let out an ear-piercing shriek. So did I. I suggested she get a sponge and start scrubbing. She declined in a distinctly surly manner.

Too much time in day care, obviously.

I have to tell you, the news on the day care front is dire. As The Times put it: "A much-anticipated report from the largest and longest-running study of American child care has found that keeping a preschooler in a day care center for a year or more increased the likelihood that the child would become disruptive in class - and that the effect persisted through the sixth grade."

Of course, truly dedicated moms don't stop at the headlines - we get to the bottom of every parenting story and seek to apply the lessons of the research in our own homes.

At least, that's the message I took from a recent USA Today article about "Alpha Moms" - "educated, tech-savvy, Type-A moms with a common goal: mommy excellence." The Alpha Mom "views motherhood as a job that can be mastered with diligent research." Who'd want to be a Beta or Gamma Mom when Alpha Momhood is within reach?

So I dug deeper into the day-care story. My scrutiny paid off. Way down in paragraph 15 of The Times story, we finally get to the nitty gritty: "Every year spent in (day care) centers for at least 10 hours per week was associated with a 1 percent higher score on a standardized assessment of problem behaviors completed by teachers."

At first, I thought, 1 percent? That's a story?

But I quickly realized that I was thinking about things the wrong way. From the perspective of an Alpha Mom, that 1 percent difference in problem behaviors wouldn't be written off as within the margin of error. That 1 percent could be the critical difference between a kid who eventually goes to Harvard and a kid who ends up in juvenile lockup.

So when my 2 1/2-year-old escalated the morning frenzy by willfully placing a pancake on top of her head, I didn't just roll my eyes. I squinted at the pancake, trying to determine if it was 1 percent larger or more syrupy than the pancake she had placed on her head last year, before she had been exposed to all that extra time in day care. I was pretty sure it was. And she was definitely whining in a voice that was at least 1 percent louder than the whiny voice she had used as a 1-year-old.

I knew I shouldn't let this Poor Behavior pass unremarked.

"Honey," I explained, "you mustn't do that with your pancake. I know it was wrong of me to put you in day care, and I feel bad about the whole selfish insistence-on-having-a-job thing. But you need to work with me a little here."

She ignored me and tried to balance another pancake on her nose, a 100 percent Poor Behavior escalation in only 2 minutes.

"Sweetie," I cajoled, "please don't be that way. Just last week, The Washington Post reported that mothers today spend an average of 14.1 hours per week tending primarily to their children, whereas mothers in 1965 spent only 10.2 hours a week. So, even though I did send you to day care, I probably still spend 38 percent more time with you than I would have if this were 1965. And I'm sure that I feel at least 38 percent more Mommy Guilt than I would have felt in 1965 too."

She remained unmoved. All that day care has left her with a heart of stone.

So, gazing tearfully at her little "Harvard Class of 2027" T-shirt, I called the day care center and announced that I'm quitting my job and staying home to correct the behavior of my precious little ones.

Sure, we'll all be a little hungry without that paycheck, but that's the price you pay for perfect parenting.

- Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Her e-mail address is


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