I am embarking on a new phase of raising my 1-year-old son: daycare. As a work-from-home mom, I am only looking for a very part time option to give Enso a chance to interact with other kids, and give me a few guaranteed hours of work time a week. But as with most parenting decisions, I get such conflicting response to this choice – from “good for you, enroll him even more than that” to “don’t do it!” In my experience, the don’t-do-it response comes from parents who believe that daycare is unnatural and harmful to the parent-child bond. But is daycare really that novel in our evolutionary history?
There are three ways that I would like to tackle that question. The first is to provide an example of a situation that is an extreme version of our modern daycares. The second is to broaden our concept of daycare to include instances where the child is left in the care of non-parents and fathers. The final is to look at the results of modern day care use.
One interesting and isolated example comes from examining Kibbutzim, communal living groups created in Israel in the early 1900s (Bessudo, 2009). The children of the early version of these communities lived in child centers, even spending nights outside of the parents’ home. However, when studying the attachments of the infants, Fox (1977) found that infants displayed an even stronger attachment with their mothers than the caregivers in the child centers.
One assumption about our human history is that mothers were the primary caregivers, and in a sense, the only caregivers of any consequence. This assumption is actually based more on the image of modern U.S. life (e.g. the nuclear family, mom in the kitchen baking cookies…) than traditional societies. Among the Efe and Aka Pygmy communities in Central Africa, that more closely match our prehistoric lifestyles, by 18 weeks of age infants actually spend less than half of their time with mom, and more time with others – including fathers, grandparents, and aunts and uncles (Hrdy, 2001). Its almost as if infants were made to depend on a wealth of adults – or in other words – “it takes a village”.
Even in modern Western cultures, as practices change, we see infants ready to form attachments with other caregivers, and other caregivers willing and able to step up to the plate. When fathers are engaged in the child rearing process, many prosper at more than just playtime. For example, when fathers work less and mothers work more, fathers are quite capable of assuming the full range of infant care (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2000). Anecdotally, women that are now grandmothers often comment that my husband is so engaged, and that their husbands would have never changed diapers, fed the baby, etc. Evolution doesn’t work fast enough to create such a drastic change in 2 generations – indicating that if we are to accept a “maternal instinct” we must also grant the “paternal instinct” produced through our evolution. Of course parenting from either gender is so variable, and there are some mothers who maybe should have not taken on the challenge (I’m thinking Susan Smith and Andrea Yates here).
Research in developmental psychology shows that daycare can be quite influential in your child’s healthy development – if the child is encouraged to form a strong attachment with a consistent caregiver (Allhusen et al., 2001; Marshall, 2004). At Enso’s daycare, he will be assigned to one main teacher with other familiar faces willing to fill in as needed. I’ve no doubt that Enso will benefit from exposure to other babies his age, as well as more loving adults to welcome into his life.
As for my scientifically backed view on day care: children thrive with more, not less, love.
Post-script: When I posted my intentions on Facebook (I know, groan!) my favorite bit of speculative advice was: “It’s hard to fully appreciate your children until you spend some time away from them – and perhaps, just perhaps, the same is true for them in reverse?” (Thanks Rachelle!)
Allhusen, V., and 31 members of the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2001). Nonmaternal care and family factors in early development: An overview of the NICHD study of early child care. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 22(5), 457-492.
Bessudo, B. (2009). Kibbutzim Site. Retrieved November 2, 2009, from http://www.kibbutz.org.il/eng/
Fox, N. A. (1997). Attachment of Kibbutz infants to mother and Metapelet. Child Development, 28, 1228-1239.
Hrdy, S. B. (2001). Mothers and others. Natural History. Retrieved November 2, 2009, from http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/11440/mothers-and-others
Marshall, N. L. (2004). The quality of early child care and children’s development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(4), 165-168.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2000). Factors associated with fathers’ caregiving activities and sensitivity with young children. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(2), 200-219.