Of Daycare and Children’s Anxiety

Robert Franklin

One of the core tenets of early feminism was that women shouldn’t depend financially on men.  At first glance, that seems sensible.  After all, men can die, become disabled or file for divorce.  Those events can whisk away his partner’s source of income in a heartbeat, so the better strategy is self-sufficiency. 

Good so far, but problems arise from those simple-seeming concepts.  First of course is the fact that women are strongly motivated to bear and care for children, which tends to reduce their workplace involvement and earnings.  What to do?  The feminist answer is “daycare” that allows women to become mothers and continue, mostly unabated, in their jobs.  They’d like everyone to believe that daycare is a suitable substitute for parental care because, if it’s not, the feminist paradigm of every woman working for pay becomes very tenuous, very quickly.

Which it does.  In fact, daycare is not only an inadequate substitute for parental care, in very young children it’s almost certainly harmful.  Unfortunately, the feminist belief in daycare has come to inform public policy.  It does so to the detriment of kids, who have a way of growing up and becoming a detriment to society generally.

Here and here are posts on the problems of daycare I produced in 2016.

What are those problems?  In a nutshell, removing children from their familiar home and parents’ care and placing them in daycare tends to increase their levels of the hormone cortisol.  Cortisol is the “stress hormone,” meaning that it allows us to recognize stressful situations and respond to them, and is therefore a good and necessary thing.  But for very young children, i.e., those under the age of about four, the chronically elevated levels of cortisol that occur in daycare have adverse consequences for their developing brain.  So, as one set of researchers concluded, “in research on animals, there is strong evidence that early [stressful] experiences shape the reactivity and regulation of neurobiological systems underlying fear, anxiety, and stress reactivity.”  And those negative effects aren’t confined to the animals when they’re young.

Daily exposure to even relatively minor stressors in infant animals leads to adult animals who exhibit heightened fearfulness and greater vulnerability to stressors.

Human children react similarly.  Researchers have catalogued heightened levels of cortisol in children in daycare compared with those in the care of a parent, a reaction that is strongly associated with behavioral problems in children in daycare and even as late as their teen years.  One study reported,

striking evidence that children’s outcomes have worsened since the [daycare] program was introduced. We also find suggestive evidence that families we study became more stressed with the introduction of the program. This is manifested in increased aggressiveness and anxiety for the children; more hostile, less consistent parenting for the adults; and worse adult mental health and relationship satisfaction.

In a second study,

The estimates indicate that on average, children who gain access to subsidized child care at earlier ages experience significantly larger negative impacts on motor-social developmental scores, self-reported health status and behavioral outcomes including physical aggression and emotional anxiety.

And in a third study,

the program’s negative effects on non-cognitive skills appear to strongly persist into school years, and in many instances grow larger as children get older. Problems such as anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity were worse in older children than younger ones exposed to the Quebec [daycare] system. Moreover, there was “a worsening of both health and life satisfaction among those older youths exposed to the Quebec child care program.”

In short, prolonged participation in daycare, especially for very young children, tends to produce elevated cortisol levels that are in turn strongly associated with behavioral problems, notably increased anxiety and aggressiveness, that persist in later life. 

Now it turns out that it’s not just behavioral problems that result from the increased exposure of a child’s brain to cortisol, but cognitive ones as well.  A new study followed to the sixth grade kids who participated in a pre-K program in Tennessee.  The usual behavioral problems found by other researchers showed up in the TN-VPK kids as well, but also

The non-participants scored higher on math, reading, and science,1 and by larger margins than they had in third grade. Non-participants had slightly higher school attendance rates and substantially lower rates of disciplinary events.   

So the kids participating in the pre-K program not only fared worse academically than those who didn’t, the negative effects they experienced tended to increase with time.

Let me be clear: daycare is often necessary.  Many parents who need to work for a living don’t have a choice about what to do with their children during working hours.  In which case, a good daycare provider is a requirement of life.  But, as I said in my linked-to pieces, public policy should not be emphasizing daycare as a good replacement for parental care.  On the contrary it should provide incentives to parents to stay home for the first four or five years of their children’s lives.  But the only public rhetoric on the issue reprises the gender feminist fable that encouraging one parent to stay home and care for very young children is a patriarchal plot to oppress women.

In my next piece, I’ll argue that the combination of widespread single-mother parenting and the reliance on daycare in lieu of parental care have created a couple of generations of young adults who are hypersensitive and too anxiety-ridden for their, or anyone else’s good.