A Controversial Child-Care Study Has a Message for HR

At first glance, the results of the largest long-term study of child care inthe United States seemed to prove that working moms really ought to feel guilty.Research findings in the project, which was sponsored by the National Instituteof Child Health and Human Development, show that children cared for by someoneother than their mothers for more than 30 hours a week — including relativesand even dads — are more likely to display problem behavior in kindergarten.For working parents and employers, the report was profoundly disturbing.

    News reports seized on the link between child care andbehavior problems. One of the lead researchers — Jay Belsky, a longtime foe ofday care — cast a very negative spin on the results, arguing that working momsbelong at home taking care of their kids. But a closer look at the statisticsreveals them to be far less alarming. Only 17 percent of the children in daycare showed “explosive,” “disobedient,” or”aggressive” tendencies, and even these behaviors were in the normalrange. The other 83 percent displayed no such tendencies. And, since 9 percentof children who stay at home are seen by teachers as aggressive, the realdifferential is only 8 percent.

    At a time when many families need two incomes just tosurvive, several study investigators say, the initial interpretation of theresults caused unnecessary concern. But they are quick to add that the report ishelping to refocus attention on family-friendly policies in the workplace, andthe overwhelming need for businesses to be responsive to the realities ofemployees’ day-to-day lives.

    “It’s very important that corporate America step upto the plate about on-site child care and family-friendly workenvironments,” says Virginia Allhusen, a research professor at theUniversity of California/Irvine who participated in the study. “One of thehuge issues for parents is that child care is incredibly expensive. It’s laborintensive. The cost of child care for families as a percent of income is third– only behind food and shelter.”

    In order to be competitive, businesses must also becompassionate, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at TempleUniversity who also served as a study investigator. “It’s very importantthat employers allow families choices with things like flextime schedules. Weknow that the quality of child care makes a big difference. We also know thatthere are those who say children might be better off poor than in child care.There is no question: the single biggest problem facing children ispoverty.”

    Investigator Margaret Tresch Owen, a psychologist at theUniversity of Texas/Dallas, says the study “may suggest that part-time workmay be more ideal for many families. We ought to add information from the studyto the argument about family leave time. We ought to look at this as anopportunity for parents to push for more consideration in the workplace.”

Workforce, June 2001, p. 17 —  SubscribeNow!