I recently came across this question on quora.com: Do young kids who have both parents always at work turn out mostly bad or good, and why?
This is a very hard question for researchers to pinpoint as, at best, they can find correlations between kids who went to childcare and long term outcomes, but the number of variables (what kind of family the child comes from, what kind of child care they went to, how many years and how many hours a day they spent in childcare) are to great for a definitive recommendation.
Here are some thoughts of mine.
I will tell you my bias right up front: I do believe that children who have more time with their parents in the early years (especially 0-3) develop better social emotional skills and are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. I don't have much data to support this other than my own experience teaching lower elementary grades where I felt there was a very direct correlation between a child’s readiness to handle the whole of the school experience and how much time he had one-on-one with an adult.
There is also no doubt in my mind that households with two working parents are more stressed. They simply have less flexibility and more to get done in the 3-4 hours the family is actually home and awake. That means that any extra stress—a sick child, a car that needs to go into the shop, having to wait at home for a plumber—can send the family into a serious tailspin resulting in short tempers and less patience. That being said, a small Norwegian study concludes that there are no changes in cortisol levels in toddlers who spend seven or fewer hours in child care. It is not until toddlers are in child care 8 or more hours at a stretch that their systems show additional stress. Still, this is a short term study that does not show the long term effects of this early stress. It could be that children learn to cope with the additional stress and are just fine.
Certainly, lots of kids from families with two hard-working parents thrive. Partly this has to do with the personality of the individual children, and partly it has to do with how organized and resourceful the parents are. Having money to throw at problems (allowing families to hire emergency sitters or household assistants or to buy precooked meals every night) absolutely reduces some if not all of the stress, but creative adults can find ways to stagger schedules, do some work from home and team up with friends or neighbors to solve some of these issues.
In looking at the effect of childcare on young children, one finding seems very comforting to me: Assuming quality childcare with clean, safe facilities and a responsive teaching staff, the biggest factor affecting whether or not a child thrives is the parents’ attitude about the child being in childcare. In other words, if a parent is confident that the childcare is a good setting and that it is good for the family to have both parents working, the child accepts that his parents know what is best for the family. On the other hand, if the parents transmit doubt and concern through their words or actions about the particular center or even the amount of time the child must stay at child care, the child absorbs that negative feeling, and it affects her overall well being. This suggests that there is a great deal of value in parents spending the mental time to get comfortable in their own heads and hearts about their situations—whatever they are.
A longitudinal study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded in 2007 that “although parenting was a stronger and more consistent predictor of children's development than early child‐care experience, higher quality care predicted higher vocabulary scores and more exposure to center care predicted more teacher‐reported externalizing problems. In other words, 1) the level of the parents’ skill seems to have a greater effect on the child’s development than anything else, 2) higher quality child care leads to high vocabulary scores and 3) the more time a child spends in childcare, the more likely she is to misbehave or resort to behaviors like biting or hitting. These findings reflect a correlation, a trend, not a direct cause (there are too many factors in studies like these to pinpoint causation), but they give us food for thought. My take away is the idea that at the end of the day it comes down to good parenting, and as parenting is a skill, parents who are worried about their kids being in childcare would benefit from taking classes (or using a parenting coach) to sharpen their skills.
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