Day care vs. home mom: which kids test better?
A. My reading of the “mommy wars” literature is that the secret variable that resolves many of the contradictory studies is social class. Namely, rather than it being good or bad per se for a mother to stay home with her young children, the effect seemed to depend on the socioeconomic status of the mother herself. The more time that highly educated mothers were with their kids—as opposed to sending them to day care—the better those children did on cognitive tests. But for less educated mothers, kids did better when they went off to preschool and other structured activities.
Hence the big effects of Head Start and other such programs prepping low-income toddlers for K–12 schooling. But also the negative effects in Canada, for example, when universal pre-school was instituted.
This makes sense: If you are a highly educated parent, who is better for your kid to learn from than you? But if you are disadvantaged educationally, then why not expose your child to caregivers who may have more human capital that you do? (Of course, in terms of opportunity costs of forsaken wages, the logic goes the other way.) A classic (if somewhat flawed), study by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted the simple task of counting how many words were spoken by parents of different socioeconomic levels to their toddlers. The middle-class moms were Robin Williams chatterboxes. Extrapolating their observations over a putative four-year preschool window, they calculated that the middle-class kids heard 45 million words. Poor children, by contrast, were only exposed to a mere 13 million bon mots. To make matters worse, this difference in words spoken seemed to explain the gap in cognitive achievement by the time the kids reached school age (which is, in turn, the root of most achievement differences played forward). So if you are a Freakonomics reader, you’d probably do your child best to stay at home and read to him or her.
Parentology - as I call this approach to raising kids - involves three skills: first, knowing how to read a scientific study; second, experimenting on your kids by deploying that research; and third, involving your kids in the process, both by talking to them about the results and by revising your hypotheses when necessary to adapt the “treatment” to the unique circumstances of your kids. Kids raised this way won’t necessarily end up with 4.0 GPAs, but they will be inquisitive, creative seekers of truth. And hopefully, they won’t call child services on you either.