Thank you for allowing me to speak on behalf of the parents and children who are potentially affected by the policy decisions we are struggling with today. I am Dr. Diane Fisher, a practicing clinical psychologist, board member of Mothers at Home, a non-profit advocating for children and families, member and speaker for the Independent Women’s Forum, and most importantly the mother of two school-aged boys and one almost two-year-old daughter. I am indeed in the trenches of child rearing, and walking the fine line between satisfying my own needs for professional stimulation and meaning and my deep belief that children need a parent at home. My belief is based on my experiences as a therapist and a parent. As a parent I believe it is critical to be a part of the environment that affects my children. And, as we now know, environment counts.
Lately, we’ve read reports that giving children high-quality day care is the equivalent of being at home with mom or dad. In reality, how much can “quality” of day-care accomplish? I feel sad for the mother who must drag the children into their car seats early each morning, often with a waffle in their hands, still in their blanket sleepers and Little Mermaid nighties, off to what often ends up to be a ten hour day at daycare. Is that parent able to be with her children in that special intimate joyful way children need, or must she rush from task to task to survive the day? These are parents that deeply love their children! And yet these children miss their mother’s perspective on the world, her comments, her jokes, the mirror through which they learn who they are, a sense of family identity…irreplaceable stuff, not trivial, not superficial — but so devalued in our society!
To say it would help if they were dropped off at a high quality center where a warm breakfast is waiting is perhaps missing the point. In most polls, it is the low-income mother who asks for more available and better quality day-care. Asking a mother, who thinks she has no other choice but to work full-time, if she wants better quality day-care — what is she going to say? It is a disingenuous question and does not deal with the reality of the mother or the children. The children still miss their mother and she misses them.
Recent studies of the brain have underscored the critical importance of the environment and the child’s irreplaceable ties to mother. As excited as we are about infant brain development, we must remember the emotional development of the infant forms the foundation upon which all later achievements are based. What does this mean? For the zero to three age group, it means time spent drilling with flash cards is time wasted. The infant’s emotional security, the ability to feel safe and nurtured enough to begin to explore the world is what’s important. For the infant, the mother is the environment, pre-natally and post-natally. We are uncomfortable accepting this, but it is a biological fact; the infant is soothed by the mother’s smell and voice. The warm mutual cocoon of security between the mother and the child allows and inspires the flowering of everything else in the child’s personality. This is not an overstatement. Intellectual skills are more resilient and can be compensated for, there is more plasticity, emotional development is very difficult. An infant can recover from a deprived intellectual environment much easier than she can recover from emotional abandonment or neglect. We say how entrenched this damage can be in looking at attachment disorder. It is the budding parent-child relationship we must protect.
Imagine a brilliant, stimulated, optimally educated child who is lacking in self-esteem, self-control, identity or discipline. This is, in fact, what is being reported in our schools today…privileged, indulged children who are wired to the Internet but without a moral compass or sense of connection to the adults in their lives. Unrealized genius is a cliche in our society, brilliant psychopaths, depressed prodigies. When we speak of critical windows of neural development
When we say “infant stimulation”, what are we talking about? Black and white mobiles? Vowel sounds? Color? Specialized physical movements? No, we are basically talking about attachment, or the unscientific word, love. We worry about what children three and even younger should know and be able to do, and want programs to measure it. Experiencing the everyday world on the arm of a loving parent is all the special stimulation and material that most babies need. The secure attachment of the infant to the mother is the critically important element for the child’s overall development.
Attachment theory says parents and babies are biologically hard wired to form a close emotional tie — and this is not a quick 12-week maternity leave bonding thing: this is a slow gradual process of many seemingly trivial cues and responses that occur over the first year of life. The adult woos the baby and encourages the baby to interact and explore, primarily by intimately sensing the baby’s needs and sensitively containing the child. Most of this is accomplished intuitively by the mother who is motivated by love and enjoyment of her offspring. This attachment is not something you can write a check for or schedule on a calendar to fit a time frame. Experts connect attachment failures with later addictive behavior, loss of resilience to later trauma intimacy problems, school problems, depression, and delinquent behavior.
There are some misunderstandings about attachment; in a recent national Zero to Three survey, more than half of parents surveyed thought that the more caregivers a child is exposed to in the first three years, the better. In fact, attachment optimally occurs with a single person. Experts believe it is only after this secure relationship is firmly established (roughly in the middle of the first year) that baby is ready for secondary attachment figures.
Multiple caregivers, a common phenomena in institutional care, is very destructive to the goals of this period. We are impatient with slow subtle infant schedules in this fast goal oriented culture. Certainly, parents benefit from help learning correct information about their infant’s development. However, there is something elitist about the idea that we can’t trust ordinary parents to successfully manage this early phase, or the idea that parents cannot possibly nurture the infant as well as trained professionals.An aggressive nationalized early childhood intervention program is not what most parents want or need. A counter-argument I often hear is, “Parents aren’t perfect, many are angry, depressed, disorganized or withdrawn with the child.” When parents need help let’s educate them to know how to get it, but let’s not assume the child has to have nothing but perfect positive experiences. In fact, just “being there” allows a child to learn about the parent and how to work out a long-term intimate relationship with that less-than-perfect parent without the underlying fear of being abandoned. That is the skill of true intimacy, not just the positive or goal-oriented interactions. Senator Dodd mentioned perhaps we need more figures for children like Barney. If superficial positive images that have saturated the media for children, such as Barney and Mr. Rogers were adequate, we’d be seeing lots more pro-social behavior in this generation than we’re seeing.
Our culture has had a romantic almost wishful perspective on parenting. We have wanted to believe in quality time, we have wanted to believe that no matter how many hours the parent is separated from the child, that parent will stay just as intimately engaged, just as knowledgeable and competent as if the parent had been with the child all day. We are seeing that this is just not true. We all saw the “no more worries, day-care is fine” headlines after the recent NICHD studies were released. This longitudinal study of children beginning at six months examines the effects of non-maternal care on mother and baby attachment and child cognitive development. Let’s look at what this study said and did not say.
First of all, most of the relieved headlines focused on the part of the study that showed that children in high-quality day-care had cognitive and language skills better than those in low-quality. The data concerning emotional attachment were more concerning. The findings showed that for non-risk families, the more hours of day-care, the more the mother-baby relationship appears to be at risk of being adversely affected. Interestingly, it is a two way street, both the child AND the mother appear to become less engaged and responsive.
Specifically, the mother’s ability to sensitively respond to her infant at three years of age was affected by the amount of separation at six months. Similarly, the more hours of care baby was in the first six months, the less positively engaged the baby was at three years. The detrimental effects of mother-baby separation over time were also cumulative, the more total hours of separation, the less baby was positively engaged with mom at two and three years of age, while the mother was less sensitive (at 6 and 36 mos.) and more negative (at 15 mos.). If emotional development and attachment are critical, day-care is not the easy answer.
I have great respect for studies that attempt to grapple with these issues, but let me comment on what is not measured. Recently the first lady wrote that quality day care can produce the same quality three year old as a mother at home can — that, of course, depends on what we’re looking at. Science cannot quantify important societal qualities such as courage, moral vision, compassion and character. And these traits, as we’ve discussed earlier, are inextricably linked with attachment and emotional development, do we really have confidence we can program this?
I think there are other reasons why it is so hard to see the truth. One sees the child riding through the supermarket or helping with the laundry with the stay-at-home mother and thinks nothing significant is happening. This can hardly compete with media images of smiling reading circles, trained teachers and stimulating primary colored environments. It is easy to denigrate and trivialize the simple day to day mother-child world. Additionally, some of us are uncomfortable even using the word “mother” and prefer “caregiver”, we believe focus on “mother” is oppressive and politically incorrect, we wish for parenting roles to be equal and the same. But children know, children do not forget their mothers or cooperate with politically expedient agendas.
A favorite argument is to say, “sure, more time with kids is best, but the days of staying at home are over.” In fact, the majority of parents of young children work out arrangements that do not require both of them to work full time (APPENDIX A). A recent Independent Women’s Forum post-election poll found that only 15% of all parents saw day-care that would allow both parents to work full-time as a solution to balancing work and family. We are inundated with polls showing parents want more time with children, not more day-care. To say that day-care is the only viable economic reality or model for the future is just not valid.
Let us take a moment to focus more directly on the recent policy conversation. Despite the fact that the latest research confirms the importance of attachment.. we are paradoxically calling for more and better nationalized day-care. Despite the specific findings of these studies, the new day-care and brain research is being presented as a springboard to persuade Americans of the need for higher taxes and new federal programs. Mrs. Clinton is calling for a new entitlement — subsidies for working parents (versus for all parents). When day-care is presented not as an option, but as the model for the future, we have to ask ourselves, why? Perhaps many of us have become discouraged and embittered by the avalanche of statistics on rising youth depression, drug use, violence, illegitimate motherhood, etc. But in response we are in danger of prescribing the poison. In response to reports of alienated children and incompetent disempowered adults we are prescribing institutional solutions that will result in more familial disconnection, further eroding the typical parent’s belief in his importance to his children.
I am disturbed by what I see as using the worst-case scenario, the welfare, high-risk, or inner-city child as a wedge to develop social programs that are then prescribed wholesale for healthy non at-risk families. The NICHD study is the latest example of data that shows the non-risk and at-risk child benefit from different things. For example, low-income mothers had higher positive involvement at 6 mos. if children were in high quality day care, the opposite effect was found for non-risk mother (the more hours in care the less positively involve mother was at 6 mos.).
This is a complexity within the day-care question that must not be dismissed merely because it is complex or politically uncomfortable. Put most simply, the images of inner-city crack-addicted negligent mother are no more the norm than June and Ward Cleaver types, these are extremes and neither should drive policy. Society’s failures should not become society’s standards. Not all parents need outside help, but there are two groups that do. One issue is the needs of disadvantaged, hopeless children in forsaken schools, with unwilling or incapable parents. This is a grave concern to all of us and demands action, in the form of school revitalization, foster-care reform, resource centers, quality day-care, home-visits and community based parent education and resources. We must not assume that mothers are any less central to their children in these cases.
A different concern is the crisis in middle-class and affluent mainstream families, where child drug use, suicide, depression and moral confusion are also on the rise. These children live in the homes of potentially capable parents who have become convinced that hands on parenting is not important, that professionals, day-care and after school programs are win-win propositions. Programs that further take children out of parents hands are the last thing these families need. Solutions for this group involve a cultural change of direction and parent education. The information we have today underscores how important parents are — we need to begin to convey this strongly — parents are irreplaceable to children. .
It is dangerously naive to fall back on the idea that no one will be forced to work or take their children to day-care. Those that are free to choose will be “free” at a financial price, with little societal support or validation, empty neighborhoods and few playmates for their children. If we only support extended school and day-care options, if we enthusiastically develop community webs to intervene with our children from day one as the new norm, we will be eroding the support for the healthy autonomous community and family that still exist.
The huge campaigns based on the needs of a small percentage of children in this country have an overarching effect on all families. We must not be afraid to publicly clarify this, healthy families (low-income or not) do not need the same services as dysfunctional families. It is hard to overemphasize how vulnerable families are today — a struggling family that finds one other family choosing to have an at-home parent, or one program that up-holds the importance of the parent and family, can be profoundly influenced. We can forward our political and social agendas, but we must ask ourselves this… If we know in our hearts that such change would be a great loss to the many communities and families still doing a great job today — then let us each commit ourselves to protecting each parent’s choice, by supporting more neighborhood schools, significant family leave and workplace reform, tax breaks and a parent education campaign aimed at assisting young families in raising their own children.
We must personalize rather than exempt ourselves from this discussion; think about the type of communities you admire, think about what you want for your own children. This must be the model we use as our touchpoint…not an unrealistic Stepford wife or Ozzie and Harriet image, but a vital alive growing community. A community weaving together our modern ideas about women and men, our wish for a more egalitarian society, and the unavoidable truth of how children need their parents. What is more beautiful than a mother whose heart is fully open to love and nurture her helpless infant…a mother who is not hesitant, distancing or sealing herself off because separation is weeks away, a mother unembarrassed to love being a mother, a mother supported by her family and her culture. More of this for all children is my icon for the future. Not a grim, underwritten, institutional reality, but an alive, real community of parents and families, unpaid and unspecialized, living and loving their children.