The number of mothers working outside the home has grown dramatically in recent decades. Today, nearly two-thirds of mothers of children under age six are in the labor force. With more than 13 million preschool-age children in some form of non-parental care, the need for child care is clear. But one wouldn’t know this from observing recent news coverage of a child-care study in which some in the news media seemed willing to use selective findings to bolster unrealistic and outdated notions about work and family.
In April, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) “Study of Early Child Care” released preliminary findings from one phase of its long-term investigation. Among them was a finding that young children who spent more time in child care were slightly more likely to show signs of aggressive or assertive behavior than comparable children not in child care.
For a number of reasons, it is not a surprise that this negative news—unlike other more positive findings about enhanced language skills announced in the same study—quickly filled newspaper headlines. “Child Care Breeds Aggression,” “Child Care Leads to Bullying,” and “Day Care Linked to Aggression” were typical examples. It is certainly true that the media have a well established tendency to focus on the negative and to oversimplify the often complex details of scientific studies. Also, in this instance, reporters who filed the initial stories had no published report to help them put this study’s array of preliminary findings into a broader context. Instead, the findings were presented by several of the researchers in a telephone conference call. Then, there were deadline pressures to conend with to get a story into the paper, on TV or the radio.
What is more surprising, and disappointing, was the underlying theme of much of the news coverage. It effectively blamed parents—and more specifically mothers—of young children for needing child care in the first place. Not long after the inflammatory headlines, many reports—especially on television—featured interviews with guilt-ridden working moms confessing how badly they felt for leaving their children in these horrible situations. Some described how the study’s reported findings confirmed their worst fears or touched too closely their ambivalence about such parenting decisions.
The days and weeks after the release of the study brought more balanced coverage. (The Dallas Morning News was one of the few newspapers that brought commendable balance to its initial coverage with a headline that read, “‘Smart and Nasty’ Study; Child Care Breeds Aggression, Enhances Abilities.”) Reporters talked with researchers who noted that the 17 percent of children in child care who showed signs of aggression is the same percent one would find in the overall child population. Others figured out that 83 percent of children in child care didn’t show signs of aggression. And some follow-up stories included other findings, for example that children who spent more time in child-care centers were more likely to display better language skills and have better short-term memory, or that children in higher-quality programs were less likely to show signs of aggressive behavior.
While reporting of these smaller details improved, the larger theme—pointing to working mothers as the core of the “child-care dilemma”—remained in place. This is hard to excuse. Reporters might not be experts in the nuances of early childhood development, but they should be able to convey a basic understanding of the social and economic realities confronted by many families with young children.
Many of the millions of children in child care today are from two-parent families in which both parents are struggling to meet the family budget. Others have single parents facing even tougher situations. And many are headed by single parents who were recently told that welfare reform meant they had to find child-care arrangements and go to work. Yet a consistent theme of this media coverage was that if child care leads to behavior problems, parents should take their children out of child care. Often the stories seemed to ignore the fact that for millions of families that “solution” is not an option.
Part of this theme stems from the propensity of journalists to cover child-care issues anecdotally. There is logic to this approach, because it helps connect the audience with the topic, and child care is a crucial issue for parents and families. But the debate about child care is never just personal; it’s also a critical public policy issue with important ramifications for children’s education and well-being and for the ability of employers to find and retain qualified workers. In fact, the NICHD study is part of a growing body of research showing how high-quality child care and other early education programs help provide young children with a strong foundation for learning.
When a study reveals potential problems with child care, it seems strange—given our nation’s social and economic circumstances—that the initial round of headlines and stories should point toward the unrealistic conclusion that mothers should stay home. Instead, reporters should try to assess the ample evidence that exists about child care and inform people about the challenges the field faces in offering high-quality care for more children as well as the benefits to children and families that this kind of care can provide.
The easy story for a reporter is one telling us that negative findings about child care have mothers concerned. The tougher, and more important story is one that explains why that report should concern all of us and how constructive changes might occur.
Barbara A. Willer is the deputy executive director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the nation’s largest organization of early childhood professionals.