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Is Parenting Diminished by Child Care? Relations Between Family Characteristics, Young Children's Experiences in Child Care and Children's Developmental Outcomes

Results from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care

Sarah L. Friedman, Ph.D.
NICHD Early Child Care Research Network

Paper presented at the Meeting of The Child Research Net International Symposium 2000 "The Child Care Paradox: Choices in Children's Development, July 9, 2000.

I. Introduction (Overhead 1)

It is a great and unexpected pleasure to be talking to you here. I am thrilled by the opportunity to be interacting with Japanese colleagues and learning from you about child care issues in Japan. I will be reporting to you about child care research conducted in the United States. Since the U.S. context and the Japanese context are different, I suggest that you think about my presentation critically, especially about aspects of the findings which can be adopted by Japanese families and child care providers and other aspects which cannot.

I am standing here as a representative of the NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. It is a team of investigators that has designed and implemented a prospective, longitudinal study of 1364 children from diverse backgrounds, born during 1991 in 24 hospitals across the United States. Our study was designed to assess the effects of child care on the development of children. We assessed the child care and the family environment at different levels of proximity to the children's day to day experiences. We assessed aspects of the environment that children experience directly and other aspects that the children do not experience directly but which influence children nevertheless. The extensive data we collected make it possible for us to report to you about the effects of family characteristics and of parenting on the development of children who are in child care.

The investigators of the study are affiliated with 10 data collection sites and with NICHD, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the United States. The handout shows their names. They are all distinguished developmental psychologists who bring to the study a diversity of conceptual and methodological expertise.

Children in child care have families

I want to start the presentation by reminding you that children who are in child care have families. People who discuss the topic of child care sometimes forget this. We need to remember it. Overhead 2 indicates that:
- Placing a child in child care is a form of parenting.
- Family characteristics and parenting are predictive of the relations between mothers and their children who are in child care.
- Family characteristics and parenting are predictive of the cognitive and social development of children who are in child care.

As you may notice, I talk about family characteristics and parenting in one breath. I know the two are not the same, but yet they are related. Family characteristics include demographic characteristics like income, marital status, maternal education, maternal psychological well-being and maternal attitudes. Parenting refers to behaviors and processes like selecting child rearing environments, maternal sensitivity and responsiveness, which afterwards you will hear a lot about, or providing cognitive stimulation.

Placing a child in child care can be thought of as a form of parenting. This is so because parents select child care.

II. Parents Select Child Care

While the options for parents are not unlimited, parents are the ones who decide how old their children are at the time of enrollment in child care and how many hours the children spend in child care.

In Overhead 3, we see that in the NICHD Study, when children were six months old about 50% were already in child care for 30 or more hours per week and more than 60% were in child care for more than 10 hours per week when they were six months of age. The percents increase as the months go by. By the time they were 12 months of age, 80% of the children were in some form of non-maternal care.

Overhead 4 shows that there are different types of care: care by father, by grandparent, care in the child's home by a non-relative, care in a child care home or family day care, and in center care.

Parents also select among child care settings that vary in quality. The availability of high quality care is limited. The estimates of the quality of child care available in the U.S. were derived by applying NICHD observational parameters of quality of care, stratified by maternal education, child care, and type of care, to the distribution of American families documented in the National Household Education Survey of 1998.

As you can see in the Overhead 5, only 9% of the settings are ones in which high-quality care-giving is highly characteristic. 30% of child care settings are ones in which high-quality care-giving is somewhat characteristic. 8% of the settings are ones in which high-quality care-giving is highly uncharacteristic.

Since parents select child care for their children, it is reasonable to expect that demographic and psychological characteristics of families will predict characteristics of child care experienced by their children. The specific family predictors of child care in the Japanese society may be different than those in the U.S. I will tell you what we found for the families we studied in the U.S.

On the left hand side of Overhead 6, you can see three groups of predictors of age of entry into care, of hours in care, of type of care and of quality of care. The groups of predictors are: family characteristics, economic factors, psychological factors, and finally, maternal attitudes and beliefs.

In analyses pertaining to care in the first 15 months of life, we found that economic factors were most consistently associated with age of entry into care, the amount of care, the type and the quality of the nonmaternal care that infants received. Maternal personality and beliefs about maternal employment also predicted families' choice of nonmaternal care.

Infants who began nonmaternal care between 3 and 5 months of age had mothers who scored highest on extraversion and agreeableness. Children who began nonmaternal care earlier than others had mothers who believed that maternal employment had greater benefits for children.

More nonmaternal care was related to fewer children in the family, to lower maternal education, to higher maternal income, to lower total family income, to longer hours of maternal employment and to mother's beliefs in the benefits of maternal employment.

The type of care was related to family size, maternal education, household composition, economics, and it was related to maternal beliefs about the risks associated with maternal employment.

I am now going to talk about family predictors of quality of care. The analysis in the overhead is based on the total analysis and for quality we needed to do it separately for the different types of care. So maybe there won't be a complete match between what I say and what you see. Factors predicting the quality of care varied across different type of care. For care in the child's home or in a child care home, family income was positively associated with quality. For care in child care centers, children from both low and high income families received higher quality care than those from moderate income families. So, like others before us, we found that family characteristics are associated with the selection of child care.

What I say now will sound very familiar to you. There has been considerable worry among the United States public about child care. People wanted to know if child care interfered with the influence of families on the positive development of children. More specifically, mothers and fathers wanted to know the answer to the following questions in Overhead 7.

  1. Does infant care have a deleterious effect on the formation of secure attachment to mothers or on mother-child interactions?
  2. What are the direct and indirect effects of child care on the development of children's cognitive development, their social development, their social competence and social adjustment?
  3. Do families who place their children in child care have less influence on the development of their children?
I will answer each question with findings from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care.

In this Overhead 8, we can see the results of analyses in which maternal predictors were entered into the equation after controlling for family income and maternal beliefs about the value of maternal work for children's development. Security of attachment was measured during the strange situation when the children were 15 months of age.

We can see that maternal psychological adjustment predicted security of attachment. The more psychologically well adjusted the mother, the greater the probability that her child would be securely attached. Maternal psychological adjustment was measured by a composite of maternal anxiety, depression, sociability, fun loving, optimism, agreeableness, her being trusting, helpful, and forgiving.

Maternal sensitivity also predicted security of attachment. But that depended on the measure of sensitivity used. When maternal sensitivity was measured using the Caldwell's and Bradley's H.O.M.E., (which is a semi-structured interview-observation conducted in the family home), it was found that the more sensitive and responsive the mother to her infant, the higher the probability of secure attachment. However, sensitivity measured during mother-child play was not predictive of secure attachment.

Because I am interested in telling you about the effects of family variables in relation to the effect of child care variables, let's see what were the effects of child care on attachment.

In Overhead 9, our two measures of observed quality of care, that is, positive care frequency and positive care ratings, our measure of hours per week in care, age of entry into care, and number of child care arrangements the child entered were not predictive of security of attachment. The analyses controlled for family characteristics, maternal attitudes and parenting.

Now, let's see if there are family circumstances under which child care is predictive of children's attachment to their mothers.

Overhead 10 indicates that when maternal sensitivity was low, low-quality child care, more than 10 hours per week in child care and changing child care settings more than once in the first 15 months of life, increased the probability of insecure attachment.

For example, the proportion of secure children among those receiving low scores on both maternal sensitivity and on our measure of quality of care were between .44, which is 44%, and .51, 51%. The mean proportion of secure attachment for the rest of the children was .62.

Before we go on with the results of the study of early child care, I would like to tell you a bit more about what we were looking for when we coded maternal sensitivity and when we coded child care quality. So, first of all, let's look at Overhead 11.

Overhead 11 and Overhead 12 indicate 10 markers of maternal sensitivity. The sensitive mother acknowledges her child's affect. She is sensitive to her child's talk and activity. She times her activities with the child to reflect her child's interest. She changes the pace to accommodate the expressed needs of her child. She reads her child's interests and behaves accordingly. She shares positive affect with her child. She provides an appropriate level of stimulation and an appropriate range and variety of activities. She disciplines her child in a manner that the child can understand and benefit from. She is flexible in handling compliance and autonomy.

At the child care setting we collected data about the sensitivity of the child care provider to the study child. That is, the focus was the child and we looked not at how the provider behaves to the classroom as a whole, but how she behaves to the target child. The data was collected over two sessions of 44 minutes each. The two sessions were about a week or so apart at each period of data collection. (That is, we collected data at 6 months, 15 months, 24 months, and 36 months of age). The session included minute by minute coding of observed behaviors of the child care provider and also included ratings of the child care provider in interactions with the child.

Please look at Overheads 13 and 14 sequentially. Overhead 13 shows the behavioral scales, the minute by minute scales of frequencies of behavior. Overhead 14 indicates the ratings. They are very similar behaviors, but the methods of gathering information by the same data collectors are different.

I have already talked to you about our attachment results. Now I want to talk about mother-child interaction. When I was talking to members of the press about our results, it became clear to me that the general public does not make a distinction between the concept of attachment and the concept of mother-child interaction. These are two different concepts that are measured differently. Attachment refers to the child's sense of security, of trust in the mother. Mother-child interaction refers to the sensitivity and responsiveness of the mother to the child and the child's engagement with the mother when they are together and are expected to be sharing a focus of attention.

We rated qualities of mother-child interaction from 15-minute videotaped observations of semi-structured mother-child play when the children were 6, 15, 24, and 36 months of age.

Overhead 15 shows predictors of maternal sensitivity and child positive engagement during mother child interaction. As you can see in this overhead, we found that family income, maternal education, and marital or partnered status were all statistically significant predictors of maternal sensitivity during mother-child play. The higher the mothers scored on these variables, the more sensitive they were in their interactions with their children. The more depressed the mothers and the more anxious about separating from their children, the less sensitive they were during play with their children.

The children's positive engagement with the mother was predicted by most of the variables that predicted maternal sensitivity. Family income, maternal education, maternal depression and maternal separation anxiety predicted the children's positive engagement.

As we did in the case of attachment, let's look at the prediction from child care variables. The quality of child care was associated positively with mothers' sensitivity in interaction with their children. But, the more hours children spend in child care, the less sensitive the mother and the less positively engaged the child. Noteworthy is the finding that this association of time in care and mothers' sensitivity was evident across the 6, 15, 24 and 36-month assessment occasions. To be noted also, of course, is that the effects were small to modest in magnitude, but about the same size as commonly studied determinants of parent-infant interaction such as maternal depression and infant temperament, though not as large as the effect of maternal education. That is, it was about as third as large.

So, we have seen so far that family characteristics were associated with infant attachment as measured at 15 months of age and with mother-child interaction during the first three years of life. These family effects were greater than were the effects of child care.

Now let's focus on the second question on the mind of parents and look at Overhead 16. What are the direct and indirect effects of child care on the development of children's cognitive development, their social competence and social adjustment?

We conducted analyses of the relation between child care experiences over the first three years of life and children's cognitive and language development, school readiness, behavior problems, compliance, and peer relations.

Overhead 17 indicates the cognitive outcomes. Our family predictors were maternal PPVT, family income, home quality and maternal stimulation. Our child care variables were quantity of care, number of times in center care, number of times in child care home, overall child care quality and language stimulation. The children's outcomes at 24 and 36 months of age were in the domain of cognition and language.

I would like to summarize all the outcomes together before discussing the results. Overhead 18 provides a social analysis. The family predictors included family income, mother's psychological adjustment, and mothering. Child care predictors were quantity, entry age into child care, quality of care, stability of care, and group care. The children's outcomes pertained to non-compliance in child care and caregiver-reported problem behaviors. Maternal reports of the child's social competence and problem behavior are not shown in the overheads, but they appear in our analysis.

In the analysis, we found for that both the cognitive and social outcomes, the control variables of family were consistently predictive of children's developmental outcomes. In general, the relations between child care predictors and developmental outcomes were not as consistent. Also, when statistically significant child care effects were found, they were, of lesser magnitude then family effects, that is, the cluster of family variables explained more of the individual differences in outcomes than did the child care cluster of variables.

The findings I have told you about so far pertain to the relation between family characteristics and parenting and the development of children who are in child care. Now, it is time to move on to the third question on the mind of parents. Overhead 19 shows the three questions.

In Question 3, is the relation between family variables and children's developmental outcomes the same or different when the children are in exclusive maternal care as compared to when they are in extensive child care?

To answer this question, we compared two groups of children. Children in exclusive maternal care and children in extensive child care. External maternal care is less than 10 hours of care per week on the average. Extensive child care is more than 30 hours of non-parental care per week. At 24 months, 184 children were in non-parental care and 164 in exclusive maternal care. At 36 months, 147 were in extensive non-parental care and 127 were in exclusive maternal care. We assessed the effects of three types of family characteristics: demographic, psychological and relationship characteristics.

Overhead 20 shows the family variables that we examined. The specific variables are marital status, income to needs which is an index of the economic well-being of the family, personality, depression, benefits of work, that is, the beliefs of the mother and the benefits of work, non-authoritarian attitudes, sensitivity in play, positive involvement, and attachment security.

The children's developmental outcomes were assessed when they were 24 and 36 months of age. The developmental outcomes were in the cognitive and social domains.

Overhead 21 shows outcome variables at 24 and 36 months of age. The child's outcomes at 24 months were mental development, social competence, and problem behavior. At 36 months we measured school readiness, expressive language, receptive language, social competence and problem behavior.

We compared the matrices of correlation between the family predictors and the children's developmental outcomes for both groups with data collected at 24 and at 36 months. We tested whether the two sets of correlations between predictors and outcomes, based on the 24 and the 36 months data, were sufficiently different for us to conclude that the observed differences were not due to chance. At neither 24 nor 36 months of age did the predictor-outcome matrices prove to be significantly different.

III Summary

Let me review what I have presented so far. Families make decisions about how early children will be enrolled in child care, the type of care children will be placed in, the number of hours per week they will spend in non-maternal care and about the quality of the care their children will be receiving. These decisions are driven primarily by economics, but also by psychological characteristics of the mother.

Overhead 22 shows a summary of findings from Phase I. Family characteristics and parenting are important predictors of infants' attachment to their mother, of mother-child relations, of children's social competence, of behavioral problems, of language development and of school readiness. The prediction from family characteristics and from parenting is consistent for all the outcomes studied while the prediction from child care characteristics is not. In addition, for outcomes that predicted by child care characteristics, prediction from family characteristics and from parenting are of greater magnitude. Finally, the prediction from family demographics, psychological and attitudinal variables is similar for children in exclusive maternal care and for those in extensive child care.

IV Conclusion

Our findings support the importance of family characteristics, maternal behavior and maternal attributes for the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children, whether these children are in the exclusive care of their mothers or spending time in child care during their early years. We find a less strong, but consistent effect of child care experience, especially of child care quality, on children's development. We find some evidence of interactive effects. For example, lack of sensitivity of the mother was more likely to be associated with insecure attachment when the child was also in low quality child care. In conclusion, our findings suggest that, with one exception pertaining to mother-child interaction, the influence of families is not reduced (or changed) by full time non-maternal care.

V Question and Answer Session

Question: Thank you very much for an insightful presentation, Dr. Friedman. In the chart in the first portion, child care provided by father accounted for about 13%. In the U.S., child care is quite often provided by the father. Do you have any information or statistics about children who have been brought up by the father?

Dr. Friedman: That is a very good question and I hope that we will publish information pertaining to it. We just published a paper in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology about the involvement of fathers in child rearing and about their sensitivity to their children while playing with the children. We have not yet taken the next step of studying the links between paternal involvement or paternal sensitivity and the children's developmental outcomes.

Question: In your presentation, you said the mother's sensitivity has a big impact on child development. What is the factor that determines the mother's sensitivity? Have you done any research on that?

Dr. Friedman: Before I answer your question directly, I want to say that we did not look at maternal sensitivity as a predictor of all children's developmental outcomes. We looked at the link between maternal sensitivity and children's outcomes only when conceptually there was reason to do so. We examined the link between maternal sensitivity and infant attachment to mother, between maternal sensitivity and children's compliance, social competence and problem behaviors. Maternal sensitivity was not used as a predictor of cognitive development, because we thought that maternal cognitive stimulation was the more appropriate predictor.

In direct response to your question, the answer is that we used observational systems that define maternal sensitivity very carefully. During my presentation I showed overheads with the maternal behaviors that were looked for when rating mother-child interactions during 1-15 minutes play sessions. We also coded maternal sensitivity through the use of the Caldwell and Bradley H.O.M.E. If you would like to learn more about the way we coded sensitivity, our manuals of operation for the study are in the public domain and I will be happy to send you a copy.

We have not conducted research on the factors that determine maternal sensitivity. I would think that (a) maternal awareness of which behaviors are sensitive to children's needs and which are not and (b) maternal awareness of the importance of maternal sensitivity for child development are both important factors determining women's sensitivity in their interactions with their young children.

Question: I am a pediatrician. Having heard Dr. Friedman's presentation, I have one question. Japanese data indicates that attachment is passed from generation to generation. How much is this considered in the American data? In this intergenerational transmission of attachment, I wonder about working mothers and what will happen when their children get married and have children. I am anxious about the child care that these children will provide. I have some mothers and children as outpatients. If a mother was not given enough affection when she was child, she will become anxious when she has children. Is this considered in your research and do you have any information about this intergenerational transmission of affection?

Dr. Friedman: In the study I described (the NICHD Study of Early Child Care) we do not look at intergenerational transmission.

You are worried that if the mother is employed full time (or may be even part time) she will not be sensitive to her child or not have enough opportunity to express her sensitivity. The child will therefore not experience sufficient sensitive mothering. Consequently, when that child grows up and has his or her own children, the child turned into a parent will lack knowledge of how to be sensitive to the young.

Most of the children in our study were in child care. Their mothers were observed for their sensitivity in interaction with their children during specific times. We found a relation between maternal sensitivity and these children's developmental outcomes, as I have described to you today. The more sensitive the mothers, the higher the probability that their babies were securely attached. The higher the sensitivity of the mother, the more socially competent the child and the less likely to demonstrate problem behaviors.

So, we know that mothers of children who are in child care are capable of showing sensitivity toward their children. We know that variations in maternal sensitivity are linked to the children's outcomes. But we don't know how much time these mothers interact sensitively with their children on a day to day basis. Neither do we know how much sensitive interaction is required for the transmission of sensitivity from one generation to the next.

Even though I don't have data to demonstrate it, I believe that even when the mother is employed and the child is in child care, there is ample opportunity for the mother to behave sensitively toward her child. I also believe that the amount that mothers do interact with their children who are in child care is sufficient for the transmission of sensitivity across generations.

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