Thursday, March 29, 2007

Views on day-care

In Slate, Emily Brazelon looks at the evidence on day-care and its impact on various developmental outcomes. She concludes that it is OK unless it is of poor quality.

The more interesting questions is why these studies -- regardless of how well conducted -- always receive prominent news attention. My theory is that day-care is a divisive issue because parents have made choices in this regard and will always seek to justify them. Let me, however, first declare my biases and actions. First, on the actions. All three of our children have been in day-care from very young ages (ranging from 2 to 6 months depending on the child). They were in for three, four or more days a week as they grew older. Second, on my beliefs regarding the impact of day-care, my view is that it has been wonderful. They are more social, engaged and happy than they would have been had one of us stayed at home full time.

Now for my theory: your beliefs about how good or bad day-care is has a one to one correspondence with the decision you have taken. Now, on the one hand, so it should. One would expect nothing less than your decision has been based on your beliefs and so we should expect this. However, I also think that that causality can go back the other way. The fact that you have chosen one path or another shapes your beliefs.

The reason is this: either decision is actually quite hard on a day to day basis. If you stay at home, you have a constant struggle. To maintain your sanity and also justify forgoing career, etc., it really helps to believe in what you are doing at a moral level. If you leave your child at day-care, you have a different struggle. You miss your children and sometimes feel guilt about this. Again, to maintain your sanity, you justify this at a moral level. Staying at home would not be good for the child. You could not provide them with the same care, etc.

Thus, every day you choose one path over the other, you are investing in the moral righteousness of your decision. So when you encounter others who have made different choices, there is little common ground. Things get debated and offense is easily created. Not surprisingly, stratification and segmentation arises and the like hangs out with the like.

Which brings me to the media interest in the science or otherwise of day-care. One side or the other will consume a given piece of evidence voraciously and will dismiss the others. In either case, the science is a consumption rather than an information good.

Overwhelmingly, the science says there is little in the way of vast systematic differences in outcomes and that other things matter alot more. This means that the vast differences in day-care views are relating to other matters -- perhaps my theory of belief formation here. Chances are whatever you are doing in this choice is good for your child and what is more if others are doing something different that is no reflection on you. Time for a little common ground.