Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently proposed that access to affordable and high-quality child care and early education, from birth to school age, should be a right for all Americans, not a privilege reserved for only those who can afford it. Her premise is that the children will be better served by community programs than by the families into which they are born. The underlying assumption is that many families are not competent to provide what their children need, and so experts from the community or government should develop and organize an effort to provide what children need from their perspective. But what does the research say about the impact of daycare on the development of children and what the needs of children are from a scientific perspective? Furthermore, there are some concerns raised about what could be taught about the social issues of the day to those children in publicly run day care centers, and whether this would be based on scientific truth and respectful of parental values, or whether the government or others in the community could utilize the intensive access to developing minds to inculcate ideas promoting particular social or political agendas.
The Facts About Childrearing and Daycare
The reason for Senator’s proposal is a legitimate one. In the United States, most parents work outside the home, at least part-time, including a majority of mothers. This pattern has been growing for years, driven by economic necessity as well as the desire of many women to continue their careers which were established prior to marriage, despite the recognition by a majority that “children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family.” This reality has spawned a good deal of research over the past few decades, much of which has yielded complicated results. While research is difficult to conduct on children due to the necessary and natural constraints of parental rights to make decisions about their child’s care, this area is prone to the same challenges of being impacted by ideology as some other areas of study which provide information relevant to current social and political debates.
Some recent research concluded that while maternal employment in the first year of a child’s life may have negative social, cognitive, or behavioral outcomes for the child, “the associations between first-year maternal employment and later cognitive, social, and emotional outcomes are neutral, because negative effects, where present, are offset by positive effects .” However, on closer inspection , several things were found to nuance these results. For example, working full-time versus part-time or going back to work within the child’s first three months of life was predictive of increased behavioral problems  for the child. A decade earlier, the problem of early and extensive day care situations was already known to impact a child’s behavior in a negative manner, resulting in increased risk taking and impulsivity even into adolescence.
A ‘natural’ experiment occurred in the 1990s when Quebec introduced subsidized daycare for all children under the age of 5, and eventually for babies as well. Research on the outcome of this government intervention  concluded that: “children are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.” Further, families involved in the program were reported to be more stressed and parents worsened in their mental health status and satisfaction in their relationships. Apparently, the negative impact of universal daycare appears to lessen after the age of three , especially for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
In summary, the better research indicates what would be consistent with a philosophy of the human person that values life and sees the family as the primary educator of a child, namely, that children will typically thrive best when they are cared for by their parents or extended family members.
A Sociobiological Concern
Many might readily understand the negative impact on children of being separated from their primary caregivers too often, too soon, and for too long a period of time. From the perspective of attachment theory, this type of disruption would impact the way the child sees themselves as well as their perspective on relationships. However, less intuitively known is that the level of stress hormones within a child increases when they are in a day care versus a home setting. Researchers further discovered that the “effect of daycare attendance on cortisol excretion was especially notable in children younger than 36 months”… and speculated that cause of the elevated cortisol levels was “their stressful interactions in a group setting.”
In conclusion, there is ample evidence that universal daycare from birth onward provided by government funded agencies is not optimally supportive of children’s health, nor likely good for families overall. At the same time, for families who have a need for help in caring for their children, waiting until a child is three years old would seem to provide some buffer against the negative impact of childcare outside the home. The findings here discussed refer primarily to community-based facilities, and where possible engaging extended family or close friends would seem to also provide a good alternative, where the level of noise, activity, and stress might be more manageable. Familiar faces and a trusted person can go a long way with a young child to foster feelings of safety and encouragement.