Day Care Daze

Dear Mr. Dad: Ever since my son was born, three years ago, I have been a stay-at-home mom. Now, I have to go back to work to supplement our income. I found a good daycare facility for him, but, I am really worried that my son will resent me and that this will somehow affect his emotional development.

A: Well, you’re certainly not alone. Whether by choice or economic necessity, more and more moms (and dads) of pre-schoolers are heading back to work, entrusting their children to some kind of childcare.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s absolutely no reason for you to feel guilty. In fact, I’d argue that you and your son have been very lucky that you were able to stay at home with him for those all-important first three years.

But don’t just take my word for it. Last year, researchers at Columbia University in New York released a study showing that young children don’t (as had been previously suggested) necessarily suffer cognitive setbacks just because their mothers work.

But wait—there’s more. A long-running study carried out by the U.S. National Institutes of Health indicates that children who go to a high-quality childcare (as is your son’s case) actually score slightly higher in academic and cognitive achievement years later, as teenagers. (If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that these studies tend to come in cycles. There’ll be a group that shows “conclusively” that children who are in daycare suffer all sorts of psychological, emotional, physical, and academic problems. Those studies are followed by others that show—as the ones I just cited—that daycare kids are better off. It’s one of those never-ending chicken and egg things.)
There’s also other research suggesting that a daycare environment helps children acquire good social skills, expand their vocabulary, and better prepares them academically than their stay-at-home counterparts. In addition, children who have attended daycare adjust better to kindergarten than those who spent their early years at home. And they tend to have healthier immune systems.

Your task now is to prepare your son for daycare, since it can be an overwhelming experience for a lot of kids.

  • Start by explaining what daycare is and what he’s going to do there: play with other children, do fun activities, learn new things, etc. Make sure to sound positive and upbeat, and try not to pass your own anxiety on to him.
  • Tell him that you’ll drop him off every morning, but that you, his dad, or someone else he knows will always pick him up at the end of the day.
  • If possible, visit the facility ahead of time—with your son— so he can get a taste for the daily routine, and so he can meet the other kids and the caretakers he’ll be spending so many hours with.
  • On the first day, allow yourself enough time to spend half an hour or so with your son at the facility before leaving. Be prepared for a flood of tears (he might cry too). A lot of children cry the first day or so, especially if they aren’t used to being left with strangers.

No matter how hard this is for you (it might actually be harder than on him), tell yourself that you’ve found the best possible child care option for your son and that he will be none the worse for it. After all, children are often more resilient and adaptable than adults, and they tend to better deal with change in their lives.