A study the media ignored
In March 2017, two Canadian economists, Steven Lehrer of Queen’s University and Michael Kottelenberg at Huron University College in London published, “Does Quebec’s subsidized child care policy give boys and girls an equal start?” in the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research working series.1 (Short answer: No.)
But for an excellent column by William Watson in the Financial Post, this important assessment of Quebec’s daycare system received scant attention.
The study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, a long-term and reliable database collected by Statistics Canada, to examine the impacts on children of the provincial daycare plan in Quebec.
To remind: Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada to have a provincial daycare plan, which uses tax dollars to significantly lower the direct costs of daycare to parents. This type of subsidy incentivizes the use of institutional daycare. As the study explains: “Some parents will change the manner in which their children receive care when the costs of child care are lowered.”
The research says the creation of Quebec’s daycare system first increases the amount of time boys spend in institutional care, and then shows boys experience more hyperactivity, inattention and physical aggression relative to girls. The authors write: “Once subsidized child care is made available, only boys face statistically significant reductions in motor social development and increased hyperactivity and inattention scores.” For girls, on the other hand, there were increases in emotional and separation anxiety.
This is not good news. Yet, perhaps more interesting is that the study shows parenting behaviours changed significantly the result of using daycare, particularly for girls. “…[I]n general, families with girls increasingly experience worse home environments… following the introduction of subsidized child care, on average, girls face significantly lower levels of parent consistency and lower levels of positive interactions with their parents relative to boys.”
The question then is whether it’s the daycare or the subsequent changes in parenting that are the problem for child outcomes, or both. The authors muse that the change in parenting could be the cause for the poorer child outcomes writing, “…behavioural responses in the home related to child investments are likely one of the main mechanisms through which this child care reform negatively affected many child outcomes.”
The authors identify a plausible reason to explain the increased acting out among children: rising cortisol levels, which is a hormone associated with stress. Previous studies have shown higher levels of this stress hormone in children in institutional care.2
Two questions arise from this research. One is that regardless of the quality of the daycare program, if parenting behaviours change for the worse, will it matter? Secondly, Quebec’s daycare program as it currently stands does not enhance parental performance. This is a repeat result from prior studies.3
Compare and contrast the research with the media reports
This particular research was hot off the press when just a few days later, Louis Senécal, head of the Quebec Childcare Association was travelling Manitoba extolling the virtues of the Quebec daycare system. “You need to invest in the capacity of children to be able to adapt to a world that is changing so quickly,” he told media.
There are many different ways to ensure that children are able to adapt in the world. Institutional daycare is neither necessary, nor helpful, given the research showing few cognitive benefits and higher negative behavioural outcomes. Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, has a decidedly different approach to the question of how children can learn to thrive in the changing world. His concern is that too much scheduling and programming precludes reflection or creativity.4 Dr. Gordon Neufeld, developmental psychologist, shares this concern. He believes if we really understood child development, we would send our children to school late, not early.
Negative policy developments in Alberta
The Alberta government is “investing” $10 million in pilot projects for childcare that will cost parents $25 per day. All the rhetoric is around “quality, affordable and accessible childcare,” which is the entrenched mythology on what Quebec’s system purportedly offers. We know from research and reports on the ground that daycare in Quebec is neither good quality, nor accessible.5 This is a negative policy development for Alberta.
Slightly more positive policy developments federally
On the other hand, the federal government is talking about targeting childcare monies to those who really need it: single parent households, children with mental health problems and low-income families. Targeted programs do stand a chance of actually delivering and some who are against so-called universal programs do recommend these.6 This reasonable move toward supporting families in need has media reporting the child care sector could “revolt.” Were that to happen, it would raise the question whether the child care sector is more concerned with the care of the child or the maintenance and expansion of the sector.
1. Michael J. Kottelenberg and Steven F. Lehrer “Does Quebec’s subsidized child care policy give boys and girls an equal start?” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2017). Summary accessed April 11, 2017 http://www.nber.org/papers/w23259
2. S.E. Watamura, B. Donzella, J. Alwin, & M.R. Gunmar, “Morning-to-afternoon Increases in Cortisol Concentrations for Infants and Toddlers at Child Care: Age Differences and Behavioral Correlates,” Child Development, (2003): 74(4), 1017.
3. “Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.” Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber and Kevin Milligan, “Universal childcare, maternal labor supply and family well-being,” National Bureau of Economic Research (December 2005). Summary accessed April 11, 2017 at http://www.nber.org/papers/w11832
4. Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009).
5. Vincent Geloso and Ben Eisen, “Quebec’s daycare program: A flawed policy model,” Fraser Institute (March 2017), accessed April 11, 2017 https://www.fraserinstitute.org/studies/quebecs-daycare-program-a-flawed-policy-model
6. Chester E. Finn, Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut. (Education Next, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 2009). Retrieved July 14, 2009 from http://www.hooverpress.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=1346