Behavioral Geneticists vs. Policy Implications: The Case of Child Care
By Bryan Caplan
Sandra Scarr’s “Why Child Care Has Little Impact on Children’s Development” (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1997) is an impressive literature survey. Postcard version:
Within a broad range of safe environments, quality variations in child care have only small and temporary effects on most children’s development. With a few exceptions that can be explained by correlations between family and child-care characteristics, studies both in the United States and elsewhere fail to find any long-term effects.
In the final paragraph of the article, however, she takes behavioral geneticists’ standard approach to policy analysis. She doesn’t even consider the possibility that marginal reductions in child care “investments” might be a good idea:
On the one hand, these findings should be reassuring to worried parents, who have been led to fear for their children’s development in child-care settings. On the other hand, the results are not a license to ignore children’s interests in spending their days in emotionally supportive and intellectually stimulating programs. Just as adults suffer in socially unsupportive, boring work environments, even though their family lives may be satisfying, children with devoted parents are probably less happy in poor preschool programs. As a society, we can afford to provide interesting, good-quality care for all of our children.
I realize that “good-quality care for all our children” is a popular, feel-good proposal. Behavioral geneticists will make their lives more difficult if they criticize it. Yet intellectual integrity demands it. Key points that people need to hear even if they’d rather not:
1. We don’t face a binary choice between boring day care that makes kids
miserable and stimulating day care that makes kids joyful. There’s a continuous trade-off between cost and quality.
2. Adults accept “socially unsupportive, boring work environments” all the time. Why? Because there’s a trade-off between fun and money. Why should parents ignore this trade-off when they choose their children’s day care?
3. If the rationale for our current behavior was (consumption + investment) benefits, and the investment benefits turn out to be less than we thought, common sense tells us to spend less. If the investment benefits turn out to be non-existent, common sense tells us to spend a lot less.
4. Once we accept that the point of child care is entertainment, we can probably find much cheaper ways to supply it. High-quality investment in children might require people with Ph.D.s in education and child psychology. That’s expensive. High-quality entertainment for children, in contrast, probably only requires some high-energy kids in high school or college. That’s cheap.