Will Daycare Turn Your Kid into an Aggressive Little Monster?

Fellow parents, you are not alone.
daycare aggression

Illustration by João Fazenda

My two-year-old son, Otis, stuffs his curly hair into his train conductor’s hat and turns up the volume on Otis Redding’s “Knock on Wood.” Spinning in circles and flailing his arms in our Somerville kitchen, he grooves to his namesake next to a bassinet holding his new baby brother, Tucker. “It’s like thunder, lightnin’, the way you love me’s fright’nin’…” and before the chorus is finished, Otis shimmies over to Tucker and gives him three hard slaps to the face.

For weeks, our toddler has been waging war against his younger brother here at home. Matchbox cars. Sippy cups. Cheddar Bunnies. They’ve suddenly all been turned into homing missiles aimed at Tucker’s noggin. Last night, Otis gave Tucker a leg-drop that would’ve made Hulk Hogan proud. At the same time, though, these seemingly random attacks alternate with gentle moments: night-night hugs and Eskimo kisses. That’s the Otis we raised—the boy we’ve spent nearly every day with for the entirety of his short life.

I’m not sure where this rowdy changeling version of Otis came from. All I know is that over the past two years, Otis has been home with my wife or me. Between careful schedule juggling and the help of a few generous family members and well-paid college students, we’ve been able to get enough “coverage.” Now that newborn Tucker is part of the family, we have more to cover, so we’ve had to seek cover ourselves. Recently, we enrolled Otis in dayca—er, school—three days a week. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

“He seems to be adjusting pretty well to daycare,” I tell my friends. “Aside, of course, from all the hitting.”

So what happened to the generous, sweet, patient Otis my wife and I know so well? Is he hiding in one of the pressboard cubbies at daycare? As the behavior persisted, and Tucker remained at risk of being a punching bag, we couldn’t help but wonder: Was daycare somehow making our child aggressive—even violent?

 

Turns out my wife and I are not the only ones asking that question. Spend time reading any family-focused message board online, and eventually, some panic-stricken parent will reveal that their bundle of joy has suddenly morphed into a raging bully after a stint in daycare. You’ll see threads with titles such as “What’s Wrong with My Little One?,” filled with scenes of biting, kicking, and toy throwing. You’ll read tales of woe, such as one despondent person on Reddit whose four-year-old son—“a happy little guy”—started roughing up his classmates: “Our son pushed another kid to the ground in the yard who subsequently hit something that caused a massive nosebleed.” On a recent trip to toddler yoga, in between downward dogs and cobras, Otis and I watched one kid stomp on his classmates like Godzilla. “Sorry,” his mother said with a sigh. “He just started daycare.” Sifting through all the stories, I can hardly tell whether daycare inspires more anxiety in children—or their parents.

In truth, there is plenty to be anxious about. Few things are more fundamentally nerve-wracking for parents than the thought of abandoning their child to a stranger—and recent dispatches on the state of American childcare do little to dispel such feelings. In 2006, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) opened the floodgates on working-parent paranoia with a study that seemed to suggest that preschool-age children who spent a year or more in daycare were slightly more prone to develop behavioral issues later on.

Media outlets across the country eagerly jumped on the story with headlines such as “Child Care Leads to More Behavior Problems,” “Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care,” and even “Bad Mommies.” Skeptics blasted the study for its rather conservative message, but the findings were compelling: Even before the study was completed, Harvard education professor and fellow NICHD daycare researcher Kathy McCartney didn’t hold back when she publicly pronounced, “So far it is looking like [the study is] right.” Several years later, British psychologist Oliver James set off his own firestorm when he claimed, according to the Daily Mail, “a rapid increase in nursery places has led to a generation of violent ‘little savages.’”

Controversial as it is, the idea that daycare might have a corrupting influence on youth is nothing new. Daycare as we know it was spawned by the Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century, when women started entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. From the outset, people expressed dismay at these early “day nurseries” and the outsourcing of childcare, but acknowledged it was preferable to the far grimmer alternative: hordes of neglected urchins huddled in empty tenements or, worse, running wild in the streets. The pearl-clutching died down during World War II, when Rosie the Riveter set off for the factories and—to help encourage this home-front effort—Congress created a government-run system of universal childcare in place from 1943 until 1946. The next major spike in daycare came in the years following the beginning of the women’s movement: Between 1977 and 1993, enrollment of children in such centers increased from 13 to 30 percent. Today, according to the most recent U.S. Census, nonrelatives regularly care for one-third of children under age five.

Along with new attitudes toward childcare came new breakthroughs in developmental psychology, including attempts to understand the effects that parental separation has on children’s behavior. One researcher in particular—British psychologist John Bowlby—shook up the field with his pioneering work on what would come to be known as attachment theory, now a fundamental tenet of child psychology. In the late 1960s, his colleague Mary Ainsworth developed a lab protocol called “the Strange Situation” that forms the cornerstone of what we now know about the effects that daycare can have on a child’s mental state. For each 20-minute experiment, a parent brought their child into the laboratory. After several minutes, the parent left the room while the researcher stayed with the child. A short time later, the parent returned.




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