Tonight’s bout of vigilante fact-checking was prompted by a story on the web site of Attachment Parenting International (API). API is a nonprofit that advocates for what is these days the ascendant philosophy of child-rearing. Best known through the works of William and Martha Sears, “attachment parenting” emphasizes the primacy of the parent-child (and particularly the mother-child) bond, which is supported by breastfeeding, cosleeping and “baby wearing” (carrying baby in a sling or carrier). The Sears “Baby Book” was the bible for our first year or so as parents, so the API web site was a natural, trusted source for advice on raising our toddler.Which is why I was concerned to find a story on the API web site that flagged the results of a research study purportedly demonstrating that child care hours correlate with behavioral problems. Fortunately, my concern was leavened by a little background knowledge:  not only do I know enough to be skeptical of any online report, but I’ve also read critiques of the attachment parenting philosophy that question its implied support for traditional, stay-at-home mothering.  So I figured it was worth a quick check on whether the research study in question was really an objective study, or whether it was designed to support childcare critics.

Much to my surprise, quite the reverse was true: the study quoted on the API web site has more generally been perceived as a call for quality child care, since its findings point to the value of quality institutional childcare in supporting early learning. The more I read about the study, the more I was troubled by the API’s very skewed take on the story, until I finally fired off the following email:

We are great believers in attachment parenting and have found your web site a useful resource. I am concerned, however, with a very misleading story I found on your site, “Research: New Studies Link Long Child Care Hours to Behavior Problems” by Amy Silver.  This story presents the results of a significant NICHD child care study as demonstrating that child care hours correlate with “problem behavior” in children or youth.

As a parent of a young child in daycare, I was of course concerned with this report. As a trained researcher specializing in Internet issues, however, I also know to double-check any online sources. My research quickly revealed that your account of the NICHD study was selective to the point of misleading readers about the substance of NICHD findings. The NICHD’s own press release takes pains to note that while problem behaviors were found by the study:

for the vast majority of children, the levels of the behaviors reported were well within the normal range. In fact, a mother’s sensitivity to her child was a better indicator of reported problem behaviors than was time in child care, with more sensitive mothering being linked to less problem behaviors. Higher maternal education and family income also predicted lower levels of children’s problem behaviors.

A more detailed academic review of the study noted that in addition to flagging some increases in problem beaviours, the NICHD study also demosntrated the many positive effects of quality child care — effects that are conspicuously missing from your account:

by the preschool years, children with more hours in center care were displaying more advanced language and cognitive skills although caregivers also reported somewhat more behavior problems among children who had more hours in center-based care.

The story on your site specifically notes that the effect of child care hours persisted even while controlling for a range of other variables, and that the hours in care were more statistically significant than the quality of care, before stating that: “Greater maternal sensitivity and higher socioeconomic status correlated with better behavior in children, although they did not erase the negative effects of long hours in child care.”  The failure to note that maternal sensitivity was in fact a more significant variable than hours in care is in this context an oversight that significantly misleads the reader about the substance of the research findings.This kind of misleading reporting is particularly troubling on a web site that is helping to guide parental choices. I appreciate that your organization has a specific parenting philosophy — a philosophy that I largely subscribe to — and understand that much of your web site is aimed at supporting a given parenting approach. But if you are going to write articles that advocate for parental rather than professional child care, please be honest in presenting them as advocacy; and if you think it’s important that parents have access to empirical research as a guide to those choices, then please present the research honestly and fully.

I hope you will either remove or correct the misleading story on your site. I am posting this letter to my blog so that you will have the additional option of offering your readers an alternate perspective on the story.

Thank you in advance for your thoughtful response to my concerns.