This is perspectives as more and more women with young children have entered the workforce and increased the use of daycare. The impact on kids has been an ongoing source of thanks to her parents. Researchers say that when kids don't have a secure attachment to their moms they can have developmental and social problems when they get older. Measuring attachment to mom is the first stage of a long term nationwide project on the effect of junk here on kids. On today's show our interview last summer with Kathleen McCartney an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. She's one of the principal researchers on the project. She'll tell us about the outcomes person.
This is New Hampshire Public Radio. I'm Laura Karan in with perspectives on today's show our interview with Kathleen McCartney. She's an associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire. McCartney is also one of the principal investigators on a groundbreaking study of the effects of childcare on kids. The study of more than 1000 families in 10 areas around the country is sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The researchers will be following kids from infancy until they're seven years old. When I spoke with McCartney last summer the researchers had just released the first installment of their findings. It's centered on the controversial issue of whether child care affects a kid's attachment to their mother. I asked McCartney to explain what attachment to mom means.
Attachment is defined as a close emotional connection with a primary caregiver and that primary caregiver in our culture is typically the mother but not necessarily It could be a father it could be a grandmother it could even be somebody not related to the child. And the reason this is thought to be important is that there's a large body of research showing that children who have what we call secure attachments just do better in all aspects of their lives. They do better at making friends. They do better in school and they're less likely to develop any kind of behavior problem or adjustment problem as adults. So for that reason people have been very interested in this construct. Seems like it's it's either the precursor to psychopathology or it sets you on the right road.
OK so the bottom line though is that so many of us work that many of us have had to including myself look for daycare arrangements for our children so that we could work because we had to work we wanted to work with us as part of our own personal fulfillment to work. Is the optimal situation. Kathleen let me ask this first to have mom at home all the time. Is that the optimal situation for a kid.
Well you know when I teach child development I tell my students that the answer tell most every question is it depends. And you've just asked one of those it depends questions. But you know in general I don't think that there's any evidence that shows that mothers need to be at home although for some mothers and for some children that may end up being the best arrangement. But the reason that we did this study in the first place is because there was there was and will probably will continue to be debate about whether or not child care experience in and of itself disrupts this mother child attachment relationship. There was some existing literature suggesting that it did and there was also existing research suggesting that it didn't and so researchers like myself were arguing with one another. In our journals and even in the press about what the answer to the question is that you just asked me while moms are home full of angsty about who I was or I don't know who's who.
That's right. And so when you look at the existing studies. As a group they were limited. And one of the reasons that research is limited is that it just takes a lot of money to do research the right way. So before we did this study if you looked at the studies on daycare and attachment one of the things you found is that I couldn't find a single study in which a researcher had actually been in a daycare center and let me explain what I mean by that. People had typically done these studies and simply asked mothers. How many hours a week is your child in daycare. That's it. So we had a lot of studies looking at the amount of care and attachment. There are some studies that looked at how young the babies were when they started care but none not a single one that actually looked at the quality of the child care environment whether or not that made any effect. Or had any effect so that was one problem. But there are other problems too I mean the existing studies were really small. And this is a statistical point but it's an important one. When you study says a phenomenon like childcare you cannot do an experiment. And what I mean by that is when scientists do an experiment they can randomly assign which group is the experimental group and which group is the control group. Now obviously a developmental psychologist can't randomly assign children to child care. So what ends up happening is as we study it as it naturally occurs which is fine but we never know the extent to which any identify differences between children in childcare and children at home are actually do the childcare experience itself or whether or not the any identified effects are due to preexisting differences between the families. So for example let's suppose for example that children in child care their families differed in terms of the education level of the parents or how much money they made or what the parents attitudes were about child rearing how the parents actually reared their children. So in order to. To do a good study of childcare what you need to do is look at those fairy ambles that affect what kinds of choices parents make and try to control for them statistically.
Well in this study I mean not only did you go to daycare centers and we should emphasize this wasn't just a study of daycare centers this was child care. At home whether it's with grandma or a neighbor or at his day care center. OK. But you also did home visits with the parents in the tent to assess the way mom dealt with her children.
That's right. We they were at 10 sites for the study. I mean we 10 universities that participated in this study and we each worked with local hospitals.
And you can't believe this but imagine you've just given birth. And a researcher comes into your room within 24 hours and says. Do you part is that I'm working with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development on this chalk you're studying this is a unique opportunity for you and your family to participate in the most important study of day care that's ongoing What do you say. And we would get their consent or their declines and then we mailed all their names down to Washington where the data center was and they would randomly select families for us to study at each of the 10 sites. And at one month we went in and begin started collecting data with these families when the children were 1 month old.
And the children are now five. And we're going to study them through first grade. But we've been studying thirteen hundred families and so yes we've studied all types of child care because we had no control over where they ended up. The parents cared for the children themselves. They were grandmothers involved nannies. What we call family day care center based care. Lots of people had used combinations of care. We studied everything there was about the childcare but we all as you say we also wanted to study something about the families so we went into the home and we studied just as much about the home environment as we did about the childcare environment. So what did you find.
Well what we found and let me say that I want to be talking about today is just about attachment I mean there are lots of other child comparables that are interested in like the child's intelligence language peer interaction so on and we're working on those analyses now. But the first analysis we did had to do with attachment which was measured at 50 when the child was 15 months in the laboratory. And we've looked at five childcare parameters. We looked at how old the children were when they entered childcare. We looked at how much childcare they had received or the quantity of it. We measured the quality of the childcare with very sensitive observation instruments. We measured the stability of care and the type of care. And the bottom line is we have no main effects of childcare on attachment. And one of the important things to remember about this study is that. The analyses and were done totally blind. I mean we had no idea which children are born which types of care. When the videotapes that assessed attachment were scored they were scored blindly at the University of Washington by people who had had no idea knew nothing about the families. So there were lots of important methodological controls in this study. Now after after looking you know at these findings we we were. At. Some of us were surprised and some of us weren't surprised I was saying well some of us thought there would be effects in the study and certainly for something like quality I think some of us thought it would make a difference. Others of us thought quantity would that there might be some threshold you know maybe more than 30 hours or something that would be important. But what we didn't find any main effects that that doesn't mean there are no effects of childcare and let me explain to what I mean. As a second step we looked at family effects. Do you know if this measure is any good it should be that mothers who are more sensitive have children who are more likely to be securely attached to them. And that was the case. So that's good because that helps us validate our nature of attachment. The other thing we found is that mothers who reported in questionnaires that they were better adjusted you know less depressed less neurotic and so on were more likely to have children that were securely attached. So that's nice we have those two family effects. And then what we wanted to do was to see whether or not. There were what we call interaction effects. Are there aspects of the childcare environment that interact with aspects of the family environment to produce effects. Now what does that mean. Well let me explain in effect a concrete effect. We did analyses to see whether or not the quality of childcare as we measured it interacted with Mom's sensitivity or no means you're out there how did you measure the quality of daycare. OK we had lots of different measures we had. It's. Just paper and pencil sorts of things like ratio. You know how many teachers to how many children and also what the training was of caregivers. But we also observed in there with an observational instrument so we actually observed what the caregivers were doing for about four hours spread over four to six hours spread over two days so we were in each childcare setting for two days to have to days. And we simply coded things like when the child talked did the adult respond and we would just make a note yes or no. Or was the child you know praised. For things that he or she did so we made a record of all of the good things that happened and then some of the not so good things that happened. Did you go into private homes own observe. We went into every place you know we did yes and we have some grandmothers. In fact we have their fathers when the wives were doing shift work. So sometimes what happens is you know mom works 9:00 to 5:00 and then dad works the next shift. And so the parents essentially you know share childcare. We actually went in and observed the dads and of course we were observing the moms as part of our study anyway. It's this way we had extra information so we observed anybody that would let us come in.
My guest is Kathleen McCartney she was a principal investigator on a national survey of the effects of childcare on young children which is ongoing now. OK Kathleen this go back to the interactions between the mother and the daycare centers and the kids what did you find.
OK when I think the most important finding from this study is that there was a statistical interaction between child care quality and maternal sensitivity that we found using two different measures of Mother sensitivity and two different measures of childcare quality. So it seems really robust. And what we found is that when children are in low quality care. In their moms were low insensitivity those children were at increased risk for developing and secure attachment relationships. OK. But you know if their mom was insensitive and they were in high quality daycare they looked ok if they were in low quality daycare but their moms were sensitive they looked OK. And of course they looked ok if their moms were sensitive and they were in high quality daycare. But we are referring to this is a dual risk. So it looks like the kids are really OK if they have one risk factor but not if they have to once they're under this dual risk condition then we see effects. So with respect to child care.
No main effects but effects that interact with various parameters of the family. You know what makes me think when you say that if mom is insensitive but the daycare situation is a good quality the child will be OK. You know it makes me wonder is that sort of undermine the specialness of mom isn't that supposed to be. The ultimate relationship. You know it makes me think gee a daycare could really supplant.
What mom gives you. Well you know I'd take the job over in a way.
Well I I would prefer not to look at it like that I mean this is there is a lot of research that shows that really what children need is kind of one person in the world that really cares about them. And there are some children who come from really high risk families. But there's a coach or there's you know a Boy Scout leader or. Somebody in law or a next door neighbor you know somebody that's very involved in that child's life. And that makes a big difference. So you know I see it as being a great thing that childcare can actually compensate sometimes. For. What a risk in the family. But the flip is also true I think that when the childcare is not so great it doesn't matter as long as Mom is sensitive. So the message I take away from this is really one that should be very empowering to working parents both mothers and fathers which is one which is that if they're sensitive and doing a great job their kids are at risk. I mean the reason this is so important is that. There are a lot of X experts out there child development experts psychologists pediatricians whatever who have been saying for a while that you know daycare in and of itself infant daycare is a bad thing. And there have been lots of theories about why it might be a bad thing. For example some psychologists have speculated that babies experience the kinds of separations that occur in daycare centers as a form of maternal rejection. Our data show that that simply isn't true. When you miss your dad. Tell me about this process called strange situation. This is your is my will. Some sort of laboratory experiment with kids. It's a procedure. Yeah I would think that some people might be sitting there thinking how do they go about measuring a tad yeah that's a hard thing to do. And there are a number of different ways to do it sometimes you just observe mothers and babies for a long time and you make judgments about how sensitive she is. Again you know if the baby talks to us is the mother responsive it's basically about responding sensitively and appropriately. I mean not intrusively So you know doing doing the right thing in the right dose. A number of people Mary Ainsworth from University of Virginia and her colleagues have developed this procedure a laboratory based procedure called the strange situation. And it consists of a series of separations and reunions between among a mother a baby and a stranger. So first the mother and the baby are alone and then a stranger comes in and most 15 month olds are pretty stressed out by. Say that. And then this. The mother leaves and the baby is actually along with the stranger now. Writes against progressively more stressful then the mom comes back so there's a reunion and the reunion is the most interesting part because you see how the baby and the mother will function together under stress. And as I was describing before you know somehow All babies cry so it's not just whether or not they cry but when babies are secure their suits by their moms when their moms come back. When they're in secure. They either can't be sued. That is they really keep crying and fretting despite the fact that they're being held or something is actually seem to ignore them or turn their backs to her.
Some babies do that. So if a baby reaches out towards mom when she opens the door that's a good sign.
Yes right in our suit. And the procedure goes on I mean eventually the baby's in a room for three minutes by himself or herself that this is very stressful and then we have a second Union. And there I know it probably sounds a kind of crazy but there is a lot of evidence that actually shows that this is a pretty valid measure. And what I mean by that is. There are studies that have nothing to do with childcare showing that when babies come from physically abusive homes they're more likely to be in securely attached in this situation or if their moms. Arse are depressed they're more likely to look insecurely attached in this procedure. So there are lots of studies just generally of mothers and children that seem to suggest that this procedure really does measure something. Now it's my view that this procedure probably also measures temperament. I mean there are some children shy children for example that are just really stressed out by this procedure. And so probably what we're measuring it's not a perfect measure is what I'm saying but it's valid enough so that we feel comfortable using it.
Now one thing you found was that boys are more likely to be vulnerable than girls to what you described as psycho social stress. What does that mean.
Well the effect that we found in this study we we found another interaction. Which was sex by amount of care. Now that this is listen to this one because it's really hard for us to explain.
Boys seem to be more likely to be insecurely attached if they're mothers or if they were in childcare for 30 hours a week or more. Girls on the other hand seem to be at increased risk if their mothers worked 10 hours or less. So in other words if a large amount of childcare is bad for boys and good for girls.
So we we tried really hard to to think about that effect and what it might really mean. And your statement here that boys are at increased risk for psychosocial stress is true generally in the literature I mean if you look at any phenomenon like divorce for example you find stronger effects for boys than for girls or if you look at the prevalence of learning disabilities in almost everyone it's higher for boys and for girls I said can we. We have no idea.
Well you know one thing I want to make it clear from your professional point of view is there one situation that's better than others.
If you were to make a list of the variety of different ways that you could provide childcare we mean you mean type of care like center for center based or at home or with Grandma or with the neighbor or down the street with four other kids. You know does it really depend on the individual and you know if your mother says to you Well I don't think you should put you know John in daycare Why don't you have somebody stay at home. Does it really depend on. The individual family situation and the mother herself.
Well I. With respect to our data I can only tell you about attachment and what we have found is that there are no effects even for type. Therefore. I guess the way to answer your question is by saying that. The type of childcare people select should probably have something to do with their attitudes. Some people really feel that that one on one care is important and if they can afford a nanny to come to their house. Sure. You know nothing wrong with that. Other people really value. The peer environment as a way for our children to to develop. And for them a center based might make more sense. I'm some people I prefer center based care because it tends to be more liable nannies get sick grandmother right sick but daycare centers find replacements. So if you have the kind of a job where you know you're working in a factory and you really can't miss a day of work because your childcare provider is sick then it might be that a center makes more sense for you. In selecting a child care setting there are pragmatic things that mothers and fathers need to take into account. There are just preference things. You know what I value. And then there's the quality factor. You know one of the things I love to talk about is the fact that. When people buy a new car they usually you know shop for a month and go to lots of different dealerships and do their homework and read Consumer Reports. And people often select a childcare setting because it's convenient. One person has told them that about it. But parents would really do well to observe.
Now I know you have two daughters. Right. They're 10 and 14 now. That's right. Did you worry about this issue when they were young were you working then with the Indic Yes.
I started I was working right six weeks after both of them were born. And I think I was really fortunate in that at the time both of them were born. I was working in Cambridge and my own mother their grandmother provided childcare for that for the first two years of life and their paternal grandmother provided some childcare too. So they had pretty much exclusive grandmother care for the first two years. But but even so I think. You know I live in this culture which is so ambivalent about mothers working in so ambivalent about childcare. There were times that I certainly worried about it or wondered about it and I you know wondered if I was doing the right thing. I mean I don't I don't know very many mothers who don't suffer you know any kind of ambivalence but I think that's really true.
You never decide whether what you've done is right or wrong and you go by a lot of books and try to decide what the best situation would be for your child. Why aren't we able to resolve this why can't anyone talk about women like you and I working women. Why can't we resolve this and say. Yeah I'm happy this is great.
Well I think it's happening. It's just been too soon.
I mean if you think about it and in the beginning in the 1960s I think it was something like less than one percent of infants who are in child care. OK. Now but this did to stick in a short amount of time later. Is that about 80 percent of children are in some childcare in the first year of life and about half of them are in full time childcare in the first year of life. So that's a really dramatic change in how families operate in a short amount of time. And I think that. We have been slow as a culture to adapt to that. There are other you know Western cultures that have done a better job than we have in the United States. I mean Sweden has one of the best childcare programs in the world. There are public subsidies there are. Paternal and maternal leave for families so that they can take some time off and get used to being parents and so on. Italy has a wonderful program. France I mean pretty much if you look anywhere in Europe they have a better program than than we do.
Why is that deadly and what is it about the United States that seems to be a barrier to helping parents who work through some sort of government sponsored daycare or even quality control.
I take all of these other countries are more socialistic in their political orientation and so it trickles down to the kinds of programs that cultures are willing to pay for and I really think it has to do with political ideologies. But things are changing here and I think you know by the time our children are raising children. Grandmothers will be available to provide childcare for example and they might not even be enough family childcare provider so that my prediction is that they'll be more centers they'll probably be more subsidies both public and private and that all of those things will help. And they'll be more research so people will feel more comfortable about the decisions they make and they'll be more options out there I mean for a lot of people there really aren't childcare options that are affordable. I mean there might be a great daycare center in town but if it takes half of your wages per month to pay for it a lot of families it doesn't make sense for them to do that so once there are affordable options for families and once you know attitudes have time to change. I don't think we'll continue to see this kind of ambivalence. Thank you very much for coming to speak with us. Well thank you for having me.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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