Will Daycare Turn Your Kid into an Aggressive Little Monster?

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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.

Researchers discovered that while the child’s response to the parent leaving was important, far more revealing was how the child reacted when reunited with the parent. Children who were more securely attached to their parents, Ainsworth concluded, tended to protest when their parent left the room but were more easily comforted when the parent returned than were children with a less secure emotional attachment. The reasoning seemed simple: The child with a stronger attachment knows he or she can trust the parent and, in turn, that everything will be okay.

For decades, developmental psychologists believed that the most well-adjusted kids were the ones who didn’t cry or act out when the parent left. Later, in the early 1990s, when researchers began assessing children’s heart rates and cortisol levels—both indicators of stress—they found that these children were actually the most affected; they just weren’t displaying any outward signs of distress.

In other words, it’s the quiet ones we have to watch. Sometimes they’re the ones who need the most attention.

 

When Otis first started lashing out at his baby brother, I picked up the phone and reached out for help. I’m an English professor, and during my creative writing workshops I often talk about the power of narrative, how writing about our lives and finding form in seemingly random, sometimes chaotic events can offer us some relief and understanding. It felt natural to connect with other writer-parents to hear what they had to say. First on my list was Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life. I’d suspected sibling jealousy might play a part in Otis’s outbursts, but what Markham said surprised me: “Your son’s experiencing the perfect storm. A new baby in the house and he just started daycare? Those are both huge stressors.”

From the outside, Otis didn’t look stressed. In fact, he seemed to be adjusting well to being at daycare—but how I think he’s adjusting may be different from how he’s feeling and from what he’s experiencing inside. He doesn’t cry when we drop him off. His teachers tell us how much he’s enjoying school. And he’s not “acting out” until he gets home. If Otis falls down at daycare and looks around and no one is there to comfort him, he may brush himself off and continue on with his day—and if we were to see this, we might describe it positively: He’s independent. He’s handling himself well. But his stress levels might have skyrocketed and he may be struggling to process this moment. This struggle might continue throughout the day, compounded by other experiences when he feels alone or unsupported, so when he finally gets home and he’s in a place where he feels safe enough to express himself, he might turn to Tucker and give him a good, hard smack.

On my quest for advice, I also reached out to Rebecca Putnam, an expert in early childhood education and the director of the Children’s Center at Regis College, in Weston. “If it’s the first time the child is in childcare,” she says, “it’s all about figuring out the makeup or the structure of the child’s new routine. Because 99.9 percent of all aggression is not hostile, it’s instrumental. It’s the child trying to let us know something.” As a two-year-old, Otis hasn’t yet developed the ability to reason or understand his aggressive impulses. Combine this with the transition from staying home with Mom and Dad to attending daycare—and that his parents suddenly invited a little gargoyle named Tucker to live with him—and it makes sense that he might be a little pissed off.

But what about the month leading up to daycare, I asked my wife one sleepless night, back when Otis was home with Tucker and me and there was no hitting, no aggression? Daycare must be the reason, right?

Yes and no—which I’m quickly learning is the answer to all of my parenting questions. The correlation between daycare and child aggression turns out to be less significant than many families once believed. Children often display increased aggressive behavior after transitioning to daycare, according to a recent study of Norwegian families conducted by Eric Dearing, a professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College, but whether or not this behavior has long-term effects greatly depends on the quality of the care the child had at home prior to daycare. “If you can possibly wait until the child is a year old before starting daycare, I think it makes a huge difference,” Markham says. “Because after that time, they have a secure working model of relationships.”

Fortunately for parents and children, any negative effects from daycare—increased aggression, hyperactivity, or other behavioral problems—are believed to diminish over time. Part of Dearing’s work with Norwegian families included comparing children from the same family who spent varying amounts of time in daycare. “Over time,” his study suggests, “the association between daycare and aggression starts to go away or become very weak, almost negligible. Based on studies in the U.S. and around the world, the evidence doesn’t seem convincing that daycare is the causal factor for aggression.”

To put a finer point on it, daycare hasn’t been proven to cause kids to become violent, and in some cases it can even be a real boon. For instance, children in families whose socioeconomic status or family dynamic has suddenly changed—a parent loses a job or the parents divorce—are less likely to show aggression, anxiety, or depression when receiving high-quality daycare.

Great. But what about Tucker’s face?

When Otis goes after his baby brother, my natural impulse is to yank him away or step into the line of fire. Tucker, I’d take a Matchbox car for ya, or even a toy train. But as I’ve realized, and I believe many parents also realize, instincts carry consequences. Of course my priority is to keep the kids safe, but by stepping in, I may be missing a so-called teachable moment. “Often, how the parent responds to the child’s ‘aggression’ sets the child up for success or failure,” I remember Putnam telling me. “So we try to teach the parent how to respond.”

As an example, she tells me a quick story about a pair of twins from one of her classes. Every day when their mother would come to pick them up, they would kick and scream. Putnam’s ingeniously simple solution—talk it out. When the mother asked the twins what they needed, they told her: “We want to hold your hand, Mom!” Once the mother knew that, they were fine. “Words solve problems,” Putnam says.

What if Otis doesn’t feel like talking? “Make sure you’re spending one-on-one time with him,” Markham advises me. “And that he gets a chance to let out all of those feelings he’s been stuffing down throughout the day. When he comes home, he has a backpack full of emotions, many of which are rooted in fear and anxiety. But if you can make him laugh, if you can help him process those emotions in a positive way, you can preempt an aggressive outburst.”

I decide to give this a try (because it’s either that, or I’m going to have to buy Tucker some sparring gear). Several days later, Otis and I stop at a park outside Union Square, the one with the big slide overlooking Somerville Avenue full of garbage trucks and street sweepers and construction equipment. Tucker is strapped to my chest, sleeping, his mouth open. Otis stands at the bottom of the slide, staring at us.

“Da-da. Come play,” he says, steam coming from his ears in frustration that I can’t climb the slide with Tucker tied to me. He turns away, the face on his overstuffed monkey backpack staring straight at me. As he begins to climb, I undo the straps on the baby carrier and lay Tucker down inside his stroller.

Before Otis can turn around, I’m right behind him, chasing him up the slide. He laughs and laughs, and when he finally gets to the top and slides down, landing in front of his younger brother, he’s laughing so much he can hardly say a word. Let alone throw another punch.

 

Anthony D’Aries is a father of two, an English professor, and author of The Language of Men: A Memoir.

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2016/12/11/daycare-aggression-little-monsters/