According to an extensive new study of more than 1,364 preschoolers, kids who spend the bulk of their early years in the company of anyone but their mothers are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior once they get to kindergarten. The length of separation was a major factor: Researchers found that the more time kids spent away from their mothers, the more likely they were to develop behavioral problems.
The federally funded 10-year study followed kids who spent an average of 26 hours a week in day care programs, preschools, with nannies or family members. Where the kids spent their days, researchers found, didn't make any difference in terms of the way they reacted to the separation from their mothers.
But wait: There is, as is usual in such studies, more to the story than the initial news reports might suggest. For instance, children in child-care centers, according to the study, are more likely to display better language skills and have better short-term memory. In an effort to keep half of America's workforce from running screaming from their offices, TIME.com asked two experts in early childhood development and education to help us interpret this study's findings. Steven Barnett, professor of education and director of the center for early childhood education at Rutgers University and Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers and the co-author of "Emotionally Intelligent Parenting," spoke with TIME.com Thursday.
TIME.com: Were you surprised by the results of this study?
Barnett: Not particularly this is not the first time we've heard this story. There was research 10 or 20 years ago that said the same thing: When you look at a kindergarten class, kids who spent time in day care have more behavior problems. And that may not be such a strange result, if you think about it: It's possible that the kids who've had a lot of experience in this kind of group setting tend to push the newbies around. Then, once the new kids get acclimated, the problem dissipates. Remember: This particular study looks at behavior problems that may be transitory.
How seriously should parents take these results?
Barnett: We should all take this seriously to the extent that research repeatedly shows that quality child care is critical, that child care focusing on moral and social development is extremely important. And we have very little of that kind of care in this country.
Elias: As with any of these studies that claim very dramatic findings, there are going to be numerous exceptions to the "results." And that's in part because it's difficult, if not impossible, to accurately gauge the influences that affect each child's behavior.
This study indicates that yes, there are some kids for whom day care is perhaps not the best arrangement. But we shouldn't read this as a sign that there is something inherently harmful about the group-child-care process.
So for some kids and parents, there's still much more good than harm in the whole day care system?
Elias: Sure there is. In fact, as we see parents getting more and more stressed, and parenting with less and less preparation and support, I don't think it's fair at all to assume that just because you're keeping the kids home with you, you're necessarily doing the best thing. Quality child-care workers are often better trained and equipped to deal with kids than overworked, tired parents. And kids who spend time early on with other kids become socialized at an early age always a good idea.
Barnett: We know what works for kids, what's good for them: Well-paid, well-trained teachers in a stimulating and educational environment. But we're unwilling to invest in developing that kind of system.