Sue Gerhardt on Why Love Matters (Daycare Revisited)

by Harry on May 4, 2006

Sue Gerhardt’s Why Love Matters (UK) has gotten less attention than it should have in the US, and almost none in the blogosphere as far as I can tell (even on the “mommy blogs”). I want to prompt some interest in it, and also to see whether anyone else who has read it has the reactions I do (or can point me to good critiques). Gerhardt is a practicing psychotherapist who specializes in working with parents (and especially mothers) of young children. When I started reading about child development I was struck by how much attention is given the cognitive and physical development, and how little to emotional health and development. Why Love Matters is the best I’ve found on emotional development. It’s a primer on the current science of brain development in the early years, looking at how well that work confirms various assumptions that therapists make about the importance of early attachment for emotional regulation. From what I can judge Gerhardt is supremely careful about her presentation of the science; where it clearly supports her therapeutic approach she says so, where it is merely suggestive her presentation is honest about that.

[Update: Sue Gerhardt’s comment at 46 below answers a lot of questions people have had — I’ll quote some of it at the end of the post]

Before I get to the policy implications it’s worth mentioning that interleaved among the discussion of the science is a nuanced account of the task of emotional parenting in which, as she says, timing is crucial; the effective parent leads the child toward independence, having first built up the ability to trust; force the child too early into independence or encourage her dependence for too long, and you risk her future emotional balance. It makes the task seem daunting, but it seems right, and having so far parented 2 babies (now 5 and 9) I was struck how true to my experience her account is. When I have known that I have screwed up, or worried that I am not doing the right thing, it has almost always been for the kinds of reasons she identifies as being the sources of bad parenting.

So what about the policy implications? Gerhardt is very clear that what is best for very young children is that they are looked after by their parents; securing their emotional health requires that their carer be attuned to their emotional states not just at a particular time but over time, and be sufficiently attached to them to involve themselves in the emotional work that the baby needs:

They need continuous care from adults who can attune to their states, regulate them, and feed back to them who they are. The capacity to do this develops through an ongoing relationship. Babies who are looked after by strangers cannot expect to enjoy lasting emotional attachments to them, building up a mutual emotional vocabulary and understanding; by their nature, these relationships are transitory. Babies looked after by people who are not ‘in love’ with them are often socialised into emotional life, with corresponding biochemical pathways in the brain, without the responsiveness and sensitivity that produce emotional confidence and competence. We know that there is a high rate of avoidant attachment in these looked after populations- ie a form of attachment behaviour which attempts self-sufficiency and not needing or relying on others. These tendencies perhaps lay the groundwork to produce the workaholics of the future labour force.

Throughout the book she uses the female pronoun for the primary parent, but this is because all the studies of parenting study mothers: she clearly thinks men could just as well do the caring, and also it seems that she believes that the tasks can be shared by 2 or perhaps 3 people who have a close attachment to the child. Finally, of course, she understands that children are not better off being cared for by parents who are severely depressed, anxious, and distracted; her practice deals in large part with severely depressed mothers of young children, and her concern is to interrupt the cycle of emotional distress. The policy upshot of all this is that governments should do more to support mental health, and should develop paid parental leave policies, or at least put paid parental leave on a par with subsidized childcare as an option (as opposed to what the US Federal government does, which is to subsidize childcare but not parental leave).

This means that she is likely to be stand accused by feminists who think that the only way to achieve equality with men is for women to remain in the workforce and alienate the day-to-day care of their young children to professionals. Three comments about this:

First, if there really is a trade off between feminist goals concerning the workplace and the quality of care for young children we should be honest about that; half of all young babies are girls, and feminists have not reason to want them to be screwed up (I’m not suggesting that they have any reason to want boys to be screwed up either, just pointing out the possible cost to girls in particular). The standard response is to claim that really high quality daycare is just as good as parental care. My reading of Gerhardt is that, as a general matter, she disagrees, at least concerning the care of babies and very young children. They need to be cared for by one or two people who love them and, if by two people, whose styles are complementary and who exhibit some sort of consistency. Here she is speaking on Radio 4’s Analysis:

It’s a very contentious area, but from my point of view babies need one to one attention. They need to be with people who really know them well, notice how they are and respond quickly to them. Now that I don’t think is terribly likely to happen in a nursery [US: daycare] situation. I don’t think nurseries are great for babies, and we do know that full time care in nurseries has some quite bad effects on children who go into that system.

Even if she is wrong about this concerning really high quality daycare, I am extremely skeptical that in the near future widespread provision of “really high quality daycare” is on the agenda in the US; most daycare for babies and very young children has to be provided at a low enough price that women can earn more than they are paying for it, and at that price, even with the government subsidy it gets, it will not be of really high quality. As long as childcare workers are low paid one can expect them to have low status and that there will be a high turnover from which it will be difficult to guarantee that one can insulate one’s own child (continuity of care being one of the keys to quality).

Second, the gendered division of caring labour is left largely untouched by the policy of all-work-all-the-time. Women still do the caring work, it’s just that they do it for other people’s children and, in the US, at a low wage. And mothers still do the bulk of the caring for their own children; fathers do more than they used to, but less than mothers. The all-work-all-the-time policy has not prompted and will not prompt, a gender revolution.

Finally, Gerhardt clearly thinks that everyone should be emotionally integrated, and that whoever looks after young children in a favourable environment will do it well if they are up to the task; it is possible to design leave policies which encourage men to take leave to care for their young children, and Gerhardt says nothing against doing so. Feminism needn’t be the handmaiden to capitalism; it is possible to be a feminist and draw the conclusion that social policy should aim to level up work of caring for and rearing children rather than leveling it down.

Anyway, if you haven’t read it you should; and if you have read it I’d like to know what if anything, is wrong with it.

Update: as said above, you mght want to look at Sue Gerhardt’s comment (46) below. Here is a pertinent excerpt:

If we want to provide our children with good emotional foundations, in the form of a balanced stress response and good development of the pre-frontal cortex and other areas of the emotional brain, we have to think about what THEY need in the period when these emotion systems are developing. I think that infants need relationships that keep them in a reasonably stress-free state, with people who respond positively to them as potential, emerging personalities and pay attention to who they are becoming over time. In theory very expensive daycare with key workers who take care of “their” babies, who are paid well enough to stay over a period of years, and love their job enough to turn up when they have a hangover, etc, could provide a baby with the essentials. But in practice studies have found that daycare workers do have high turnover, and have in the past been reluctant to get involved emotionally with their charges. Many nurseries have a harsh ethos, urging premature independence. Some studies have found that children in daycare are stressed (have high cortisol) even when they appear to have adjusted.
On the other hand, there are studies that show that if a child has established a secure attachment to their parent before they attend daycare, that relationship will not be affected by attending daycare. Daycare has the worst effects on children who are not secure (in attachment terms) in their own families.
But attachment security takes time to develop, most of the first year, so it still brings us back to parental care for at least the first year unless things are not good at home



David Weman 05.04.06 at 10:19 am

What do you mean by “babies” and “young children” When you talk about subsidizing parental leave, do you mean the first months, or several years?


alkali 05.04.06 at 10:20 am

The whole ballgame depends on the soundness of Gerhardt’s empirical claim that even what we think of as high quality day care is necessarily bad for children. That is likely to be overlooked in the discussion because people already have opinions about her policy recommendations (e.g., that there should be more government support for parental leave), and will jump right to talking about those recommendations and whether they favor or oppose them on grounds unrelated to Gerhardt’s. But if Gerhardt’s empirical claim is wrong — and candidly it strikes me as nearly 100% crankery — she has nothing to contribute to the discussion.

By way of analogy, suppose that I wrote a book in which I said that I very strongly felt that wheat and corn flour cause cancer and that for that reason we should cut back on subsidies to wheat and corn farmers and encourage people to eat more fruit. I can imagine that people could talk for hours about those policy recommendations even though my underlying empirical claim — that wheat and corn flour cause cancer — is utter crap, and really I’ve done nothing but confuse the debate.


JRoth 05.04.06 at 10:26 am

I suppose it’s just nipping at the edge of the argument to debate the merits of “really high quality day care,” since it’s effectively beyond the reach of 75%+ of the population (although with subsidies…), but I’m not sure that Gerhardt’s arguments apply any more to day care than they do to large families. Pennsylvania state regulations require something like a 1:4 ratio of caregiver to under-1 children, with a gradual decrease as children approach school age. Assuming dedicated staff (not a big round robin), how does this differ from a two-parent family with 5-8 children? [OK, I see the flaw – a big family has at least some kids old enough to fend for themselves; but I doubt Gerhardt spends time arguing against stay-at-home moms with 4 kids under 4, which is not that uncommon]

And since certified day care has trained staff (“really high quality” usually features at least some staff with BAs – or more – in early childhood development), whereas parents get 0 training in child rearing, it’s simply not clear to me how this would be appreciably worse than home care.

All that said, I’m curious to read this book; as you say, emotional development seems to be underdiscussed, probably because it’s more subjective and, more importantly, so sensitive – you can hardly say anything about it to a parent without responses of “what are you saying is wrong with ME?”


David Weman 05.04.06 at 10:33 am

I’m sure it’s beyond the reach of more than 75% of the world’s population.


LizardBreath 05.04.06 at 10:43 am

I should read the book, which may be a fine one, but I worry about the argument presented. First, my understanding from other sources is that the empirical basis of her claim — that day care is significantly harmful to young children — is very weak. From your description it doesn’t sound as though she’s reporting new science; to the extent that I’m familiar with the old science, it doesn’t support the claim that non-parent or solo-caregiver care is harmful.

Second, I’m reacting to the title of the book here, but the use of the word ‘love’ really weights the discussion toward saying that children must be cared for by a parent, and that anything else is harmful. I work, and I am thankfully well off enough to have my children cared for during the day by an excellent nanny. She’s affectionate and concerned with them — does she love them? Oh, probably she does, she’s been with us for six years now and they’re endearing little maniacs, but there would have been no reason for her to have loved them when we hired her. Is Gerhardt arguing that care from a concerned and affectionate caregiver that doesn’t ‘love’ the child as a parent does is going to be harmful? Because that strikes me as very unlikely.


Harry B 05.04.06 at 10:47 am

David — she is (deliberately?) evasive about timelines. The UK government just introduced 9 months; she has not complained, but my sense is that she wants more — 12 months? 24 months? Her book is mainly about the first 2 years of life, which she sees I think as the crucial period (whihc isn’t to say that nothing can be done valuably after that, just that getting it right in those 2 years is important).

akali — there are all sorts of reasons for thinking that even highly qualified carers will bne less attuned to the needs of a baby, and less motivated to act on those needs, than someone who loves the baby and shares most of its life, no? Anyway, before dismissing it as crankery, look at the evidence (which is compelling, as she presents it, but certainly not decisive, you have to use your judgment).

But for policy purposes I don’t see why anything much turns on the isue of the effects of really high quality day care, because, as I say, its not something that is on the US agenda; most daycare is far from that (really high quality would require highly qualified carers who cared for the same baby day-in-day-out, and didn’t move jobs frequently; veryr few day care centers have sufficiently low employee turnover to count). Changing this is not anywhere near anyone’s policy agenda, especially for the children of poor parents.

jroth: I kept thinking about large families, too, when reading the book. “4 kids under 4 is not uncommon”? It isn’t exactly common, either. Again, if the ratio is the same, there are still reasons to expect the person who loves the kids to do a better job. But there might be (child-centered) reasons to discourage people from having 4 kids in 4 years, too.


David Weman 05.04.06 at 10:59 am

Well, as long as it’s only nine months, would most feminists object? (US or UK?) I know US feminists are different in orientation than Swedish feminists, so maybe they would.

But one could design the policy in such a way that dad’s are enticed or forced to do their part.

“This means that she is likely to be stand accused by feminists who think that the only way to achieve equality with men is for women to remain in the workforce and alienate the day-to-day care of their young children to professionals.”


Harry B 05.04.06 at 11:00 am

lizardbreath — “harmful” is always relative to a baseline, right, and I’m not sure that either she or I use the term. The question is what’s the best way of making it very likely that children avoid certain bad outcomes. Should social policy give people strong incentives to spend the early years of their children’s lives at work, while the kids are in daycare, or should it give them incentives to spend that time largely with their children; or should it perhaps not try to tilt them one way or the other. US tax policy gives very strong incentives to keep them in daycare, and the divorce regime partiocularly gives women incentives to stay in the labour force. The US labour market is also especially unforgiving for people who want flexibility; parents who want to share childcare among themselves, or want to use a mix of childcare and staying at home.

She doesn’t talk much about nannies, because nannies are simply not part of the policy debate. I’ve been a nanny, myself, though only for a while. One nanny for six years sounds great, to me. 6 nannies in six years, even if they are each great nannies, not so good. Love and continuity intertwine.


Harry B 05.04.06 at 11:04 am

David (I’m going to stop replying so suddenyl like this soon): some feminists do object, quite strongly (if you follow the “handmaiden to capitlaism” link and then follow the link to Hirschman you’ll find one), and I think Gerhardt has been given a bit of a hard time on these grounds in the UK. And, as I say, the argument of the book supports more than 9 months. But I agree that policies can entice men to do more, and in fact I think that only paid leave policies can change the gendered division of childrearing labour, as I hint in the post; subsidised daycare ensures that almost all of the daily caring is done by women.


dearieme 05.04.06 at 11:14 am

You’d really need controlled experiments to settle these points. Is that possible? Has anyone been sharp enough to spot “natural” experiments? Or will it degenerate into one camp which believes in daycare (because it suits their lives) and another which disapproves?


Tim 05.04.06 at 11:23 am

It seems to me that the love-for-the-child axis and the highly-qualified-caregiver axes are pretty much unrelated to each other. I can’t tell here whether the book sets these up in contrast to each other, or whether it this contrast is implicit in the book or Harry’s comments, or what.

I’m also unclear on whether Gerhardt uses “parent” as a proxy for loving-the-child, or whether she’s tried to separate out these two items at all.


magistra 05.04.06 at 11:28 am

The problem with a lot of the studies on daycare is that they concentrate on the effects of fulltime daycare from a very early age. This isn’t actually a common situation, at least in the UK. There was a similar claim made recently in the UK about the harmful effects of daycare. In one of the article discussing this, (,,2087-2036862.html), Steve Bidulph said that only about 5% of British parents were ‘slammers’, having children in day care full-time from under 6 months. Another 35% were ‘sliders, putting children in daycare part-time after age 2. 60% of parents didn’t use nurseries at all.

The real choices for mothers like myself are more subtle. I would count as somewhere between a slammer and a slider – my child has had part-time daycare since six months or so, in a nursery which I knew had low staff turnover. I think the benefits to myself (and thus indirectly to my child) justified this and so far it seems to have worked OK for her. Just saying daycare is bad and your child should have as little of it as possible (which is what the experts tend to end up saying, whatever their initial qualifiers) is pretty unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t want or can’t afford to be a full-time parent for four years or more. (I calculated this is what it would mean if you took seriously Steve Biddulph’s ideas about how little time you should ideally spend away from your child.)


cd 05.04.06 at 11:40 am

If justice were to prevail in the world, men would be as interested as women in the option of parental leave. As things stand, though, were businesses required to offer parental leaves to both parents (are they already? I’m not sure of the law on this), we could predict many fewer men than women would exercise the option. Why? Partly it would be due to the (lamentably) persisting notion that childcare is “women’s work.” Partly it would be due to the fact that in a competitive workplace in an economy where median wages have been stagnating for 3 decades, it is hard for families to make ends meet, and men can feel like they need to go “all out” to provide financially for their family; this creates a reluctance to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis other workers by taking leave. Partly too, men’s greater reluctance to take leave probably is due to there being relatively few men doing so, so that in daytime trips to the playground, the library, playgroups, grocery store, etc. a stay-at-home dad encounters few others in his position. This can have at least a couple of inhibiting effects: for those still in the grip to some extent of traditional gender roles, it can be experienced as emasculating and hence threatening. But even for those without such hangups, it can be a bit lonely; such men may often feel, rightly or wrongly, like they are gate-crashing on some scene to which they are outsiders. Camaraderie with other parents, rightly or wrongly, will be harder to find for many men than it is for many women. That may sound pathetic but I suspect it is a real factor.

What is the solution? I do not know. Turning our backs on traditional gender-roles is necessary but not sufficient. Making leaves paid will help (so long as health benefits aren’t interrupted too), but there will still be financial insecurity owing to the competitive workplace that will make some men reluctant to take them. And the social dynamic issues remain. What is needed is to reach a tipping point where many many men take such leaves, which will reduce the worries about putting oneself at a competitive disadvantage and reduce the worries about being a lonely stay-at-home dad. Perhaps paid leaves will usher us to that tipping point, but I doubt it. I don’t know what will.


Brett Bellmore 05.04.06 at 11:41 am

“and feminists have not reason to want them to be screwed up”

This is, to put it mildly, not intuitively obvious. If being screwed up really does “lay the groundwork to produce the workaholics of the future labour force.”, and feminists, despite occasional rhetoric about choice, only respect women who pursue a career working outside the home, then perhaps they DO have reason to want them screwed up.


Emma Jane 05.04.06 at 11:57 am

As a current “mommy blogger” (and a current “slammer,” for that matter), let me say that I’d rather chew off my daughter’s left leg than read this book right now. Let alone try to respond to it in any sort of intellectually responsible fashion.


Kieran Healy 05.04.06 at 11:56 am

Right, Brett. The same argument goes through (and with about as much plausibility) if you replace “feminist” with “evil capitalist class” — obviously the capitalists want to produce workaholics, and so despite occasional rhetoric about choice, it’s in their long-term interest to lobby to have the cost of daycare reduced.


Jake 05.04.06 at 12:55 pm

You’d really need controlled experiments to settle these points.

Not true. You can do good science without controlled experiments. The data we have for thinking, e.g., that smoking causes lung cancer doesn’t come from controlled experiments.

Look up cohort studies


joe o 05.04.06 at 1:02 pm

This article talks about some of the issues and doesn’t come down strongly against daycare. This review of twin studies suggests that cortisol level differences are highly heritable (about 63%)while acknowloging the effects of adverse childhood experiences.

Daycare has been around for a long time so you would expect if it was turning people into Romanian orphans we would know by now. You would think that for evolutionary reasons, kids would be pretty robust to most reasonable levels of treatment. The other thing that effects some studies of daycare is that parents are more likly to stay at home with easy babies and send babies that are a pain in the ass to daycare. High cortisol level babies tend to be fussy and cry alot .


clew 05.04.06 at 1:06 pm

On the other hand, literature and gossip provide me with a slew of examples of parents who could not reflect and guide their child’s personality because their self-image was bound up in their perception of the child. Me, I think every child needs an aunt or long-term neighbor or friend of the parent, someone affectionate but not *invested*. I expect a long-term nanny would be even better, but I’ve never known a nanny.


Harry B 05.04.06 at 1:19 pm

A couple of comments prompted by comments.

First, while Gerhardt’s account implies a good deal of sound advice about what to do with your baby/child when you are with it and what to take into account when making decisions about what to do about childcare decisions, it is not a “how to” book. Nor does it (at least on my reading) imply or evince any disapproval of people who decide to return to work early, and use daycare. She seems to understand that lots of people face circumstances which make returning to work and using full time daycare earlier thanshe thinks ideal the best choice. The thing is to change the conditions which put people in that situation.

Second, she does not seem at all to support the kind of narcissistic and isolated kind of familial situation which clew might have in mind. It is quite consistent with the idea that parents should be the main carers in the first couple of years that more people than just the parents should be involved in a child’s life, and should be involved in ways that are long term and emotionally intimate. I agree with clew about this, even when the parents are NOT narcissistic!


Mrs. Coulter 05.04.06 at 1:32 pm

I find it interesting that “from a young age” is never quite defined, because that’s where I think the crux of the issue is.

Based on my personal experience (which I don’t think can necessarily be extrapolated to anyone else’s child), no one else (except perhaps my husband) could have provided my daughter with the kind of intensive, close care that she seemed to need as an infant (which included sleeping in my arms for many hours per day). When she was about 15 months, we had the opportunity to put her in a high quality daycare center two days a week. I was nervous and tense about it, but we did it anyway, and and she *loves* it. In fact, she now asks to “go to school” on days which are not school days. Next year, she will be enrolled full-time. I firmly believe that at some point between one and two, she reached a point where her need for varied activity and greater social interaction outstripped my ability to tote her to playdates and baby music classes.

If my own experience could be extrapolated (and I don’t know that it can) this suggests is that in an ideal world, there would be support for one parent or the other, or a close relative or some other consistent, loving adult to provide one-on-one or nearly one-on-one care for approximately the first year, followed by a gradual transition into a group care setting (and support for the care-giver’s gradual reentry into the paid working world (or to a different family for an unrelated care-giver)).

Frankly, I think that it’s horrifying that US expectation of maternity/paternity leave for new parents is 6-8 weeks. I know quite a few women who probably would not have gone the SAHM route if they could have taken a 6-12 month leave, and/or worked part-time successfully. Our current system pushes an all-or-nothing decision, though, which is hard on everybody.


lalala 05.04.06 at 1:34 pm

The post quotes Gerhardt as saying

Babies looked after by people who are not ‘in love’ with them are often socialised into emotional life, with corresponding biochemical pathways in the brain, without the responsiveness and sensitivity that produce emotional confidence and competence.

This claim is particularly interesting to me because it fits very well with something that my mother suggested to me and I have since found to be fairly consistently true: That if you look into the background of the most “emotionally confident and competent” people, you will find that their parents just adored them (but in ways that allowed them some independence, etc). And that, by the same logic, many insecure or neurotic people had less beneficial parenting. This doesn’t require the extremity of abuse or anything like that – I’ve certainly observed it in families where the parents had a clear favorite among their children, however hard they tried to be fair and not express favoritism.

My point being, I think there’s something to Gerhardt’s claim. I just don’t think the down side of it is remotely restricted to paid caregivers.


Matt 05.04.06 at 1:49 pm

Norway has a nice system- for women, 42 weeks at 100% pay of leave or 52 weeks at 80%, plus up to one year more job protection of unpaid leave. For women who were not employed a lump some is given. For men, either two weeks of unpaid leave just after the birth or else 4 weeks of paid leave. (This is, of course, to encourage the fathers to take more part in the early care- there is a high percentage of useage, I guess.) Actually, the 42 or 52 weeks above can be shared between the parents except for certain parts that are reserved just for the woman (just before and just after the birth) and the 4 weeks for men, which cannot be transfered. (Even Russia gives one year maternity leave, w/ some pay, though I suspect that the percentage of pay isn’t great.)


Andrew Brown 05.04.06 at 2:20 pm

Well, I suppose I owe my career and my future life to Swedish paternity laws, since I stayed home to look after my son from the time he was about three months old until he was three and started some limited daycare, while his mother went back to work. And I thought — still think — that this was a marvellously civilised arrangement. But at the risk of starting a new row, I don’t think I was nearly as good at being a mother as a woman would hav been. I loved him, and cared for him and nourished his personality and all that. But I couldn’t do the mindless chatter bit at all. I don’t think I was as good a help with development as I should have been. Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


cs 05.04.06 at 2:30 pm

A little off topic, but I think your first reply to the feminists is really weak. All policy choices involve trade-offs. To say that feminists should be especially concerned by the particular trade-off you cite, just because some of those adversely affected would be female, is silly.


Harry B 05.04.06 at 2:35 pm

cs — thanks, that seems right to me. I won’t amend it here, but will avoid such a weak argument in future. No, sorry, I’ll avoid that weak argument in future, I’m sure I’ll make others equally weak.


ingrid 05.04.06 at 2:47 pm

Harry, I feel uneasy about the way you use the word “feminist” in your post — I am involved in several feminist organisations, and feminists themselves argue a lot about these issues. There are many feminists who would indeed think that women should become like men (i.e. working full time), but there are also many who think that everyone should have the real opportunity to work less and care more and have a better quality of life. Your post can be read as if only the first type of feminists exist.

I also have a question: what does Gerhardt say about breastfeeding? Breastfeeding is better for babies in all sorts of ways, such as higher IQ, better psychical health, lower chances of obesity and allergies, and alledgedly also a stronger bonding between mother and child. Sweden has a very high percentage of mothers breastfeeding 1 year; I’m sure that among the employed women, there must be a positive correlation between whether they are entitled to paid maternity and parental leave, and the chance that they will breastfeed for several months. That would be an other argument in favor of at least 6 months maternity leave.


Brett Bellmore 05.04.06 at 3:50 pm

Kieran, when you devise a reducto, try to be sure it actually IS absurd.


Colin Danby 05.04.06 at 4:17 pm

Ingird has a point. Harry did qualify: “feminists who think that the only way to achieve equality with men is for women to remain in the workforce and alienate the day-to-day care of their young children to professionals.” But precisely whose program is that? Any references, anyone? And as you can see in comments, some folks tend to conflate that with “feminists” in general, and wander off into conspiracy theories.


des von bladet 05.04.06 at 4:59 pm

Which other things are being left equal in the survey that resulted in these conclusions? In particular, the thing that would interest me would be the “critical carer churn-rate” — babies may very well profit from nurturing relationships measured in weeks rather than afternoons, but I have actually sketched — in collaboration with the countess-elect von Bladet, of course — plans to move to Zweden precisely to take advantage of their very excellent “dagis” system of daycare and especially its early availability.

(I talk at least as much ambient drivel as the countess-elect, although admittedly in different conversational genres, so I would cheerfully attempt to counter-exemplify Andrew Brown’s remarks.)


Harry B 05.04.06 at 5:00 pm

You’re right ingrid and colin, what I wrote was misleading, even with the qualification colin is kind enough to point out. (Perhaps if I’d prefaced “feminists” with “those” it would have been a bit better). Of course, I think Gerhardt is a feminist and that my own position (whatever it is) is feminist too. I meant to have that phrased linked the the Linda Hirschman article that you can get to circuitously via Laura at 11D, which would have been much less misleading, and I forgot to put in the link, and don’t have time to fiddle now (or say anything more) because its dinner time followed by violin lesson time and swimming lesson time (different kids, and no, we’re not overscheduling them, its just Thursdays).


goatchowder 05.04.06 at 5:20 pm

Well I think there are two problems here.

First of all, our economic system simply doesn’t value “women’s work” very much. Look at how teachers are paid, and daycare providers, nannies, etc., and the still-persistent stereotype that stay-at-home parents “don’t work”. A more cooperative, less competitive, alternative economy can go a long way to solving this, and I’ll cite the work of international banker Bernard Leitaer (“The Future of Money”) and welfare-reformer Edgar Cahn (“No More Throw-Away People”). We are destroying ourselves as a society by monetising cooperative work using a competitive money system– a good deal of the “growth” in the economy is people now paying for services they once got or provided through barter or social obligation. I believe this is actively destroying the fabric of society.

Secondly, men need to step up and do more of this stuff. It’s utter bullshit ins 2006 to leave it to the women to do all this stuff. I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home dad for 4 years now, and was doing it part-time for a year before that. It is, by far, the most grueling, difficult work I’ve ever done. However, it has been the most rewarding I’ve ever done, by far. Fate caught me in a massive layoff several months after becoming a father– such is the luck of kids born during the dot-bomb. Women are still paid less than men, and therefore are less likely to be laid off, and since my wife’s job was safe and steady, she kept it, and I became Mr. Mom. It has not been easy. We have cut back our lifestyle dramatically, but come out of it much stronger in every possible way. This has been our Walden. I recommend it highly.

I agree, feminists should not be defending women who place their kids into daycare, they should be attacking men who claim that raising kids is women’s work. We may not have the hundreds of millions of years experience that women have in this area, but goddammit we can do it just as well as they do. Anyway, that’s what they’ve said to us for a generation as they’ve demanded the right to become plumbers, police officers, soldiers, and CEO’s, and it is a symmetrical process. Moreover, for the sake of our kids’ mental and emotional health, it *has* to be symmetrical– I don’t feel that dumping kids into daycare is an option, and, gentlemen, it’s time to step up. Sure it’s brutally hard work, but we CAN do it. We HAVE to do it. I’m heartened to find that at least some of the experts agree.


sieghi 05.04.06 at 5:21 pm

D.W.Winnicott, pediatrician and psychiatrist (died 1971), spoke of relating to a child with “primary maternal preoccupation”, which specifically provides what Gerhardt describes as continuous care and emotional parenting, and is considered essential to the healthy mental development of a child. Without it, a child develops a “false self” that is shallow and dependent upon reactions to the environment. There is no authentic self, resilient and deep, developed through empathy and trust.

This conversation reminds me of the sociopolitical influence on science; for example, in the history of intelligence testing, there have been changing emphases on race and gender (see S. J. Gould’s, “The Mismeasure of Man”). In contemporary society, the sociopolitical forces exact positive assessments of “high quality daycare” without critical and honest analysis of long-term outcomes.


Laura 05.04.06 at 6:45 pm

So, does Gerhardt make the claim that all daycare is bad in the first two years or that only bad daycare is bad?

I’m glad that you reviewed this book, Harry. I wouldn’t go so far as to condemn all daycare. My niece is one and seems to be quite nicely. (Her folks are also exceptionally involved.) I think that a lot of academics have their kids in nice campus set ups and forget that all daycare isn’t like that. I had my kid in a bad daycare for a few years. I don’t think he was permanently scarred, because he was only in part time. Even my mom said that being ignored for a short time never hurt anybody. But the kids who were there for 12 hours a day were sad, sad bunnies. There weren’t abused or anything, but they weren’t happy. I often wondered if being sad for that long had some long term effect.

It’s too bad that talking about bad daycare is such a taboo topic, because it’s a real problem. Either we have to invest money into fixing it, or we have to give up on daycare and enable people to watch their own kids. But that would cost money, too. Problems, problems.


anon 05.04.06 at 7:21 pm

I don’t disagree with the goal of providing more (any) paid leave for mothers and/or fathers in a child’s first year of life. It certainly was wrenching for me to leave each of my two when I returned to work, and I had excellent care and the ability to work part time.

But I mistrust a prescription (2 or 3 loving caregivers) that is not consistent with historical ways of child rearing. Large extended families in rural settings surely entailed more caregiver diversity than that. In my own childhood during the 1950’s-early 60’s, in a family of 5 children of whom I was the eldest, I spent a lot of time caring for the babies/toddlers as they arrived, as did my next-in-age sister. It was my experience and observation of other families that that was the common practice. Also, when my mom was in charge, she was a busy housekeeper and cook, and often put the baby in the feeding table or playpen.

It was also the case that toddlers went with elder siblings as they played with friends. This modern practice of scheduling every moment of the day, where parents or surrogates must beam attention on the child during every waking hour, planning play dates in order to have other children around is just not what human childrearing has been like until very recently and in very privileged households at that.


modus potus 05.04.06 at 8:23 pm

anon brings up a good point: the nuclear small (average 2-kid) family is an historical anomaly. Grandparents, older siblings, aunts and uncles, even “family friends” tended to have a larger role in child-rearing in times past and in other cultures. We’ve simultaneously attempted to saddle parents (and mothers in particular) with sole responsibility for raising children while stripping them of the support systems offered by extended family. The replacement, an admixture of “experts” and underpaid, under-skilled caregivers, is both more costly and less likely, IMHO, to yield a good outcome.


Gawain 05.04.06 at 9:06 pm

Timeline is the critical issue. The upper classes in India — one and all — send off their children (usually boys, but increasingly girls) to boarding schools aged 5. During all my years with upper class Indians, I haven’t noticed any signs of stunted emotional growth among them. They seemed no different from us or from their middle class compatriots. Presumably this indicates that by age 5 baby doesn’t need Mom anymore?


Gawain 05.04.06 at 9:21 pm

PS For a counter-point you may want to review Jerome Kagan’s “Three Seductive Ideas”, where he criticises the view that the first 2 years of a child’s life are somehow more fundamentally formative.


vivian 05.04.06 at 9:43 pm

Thank you, Emma Jane (16), I agree completely!

Not having read the book, or likely to anytime soon, I trust our reviewer that the author seems genuinely to care for equal parenting but much less delegation to others. But. If her job involves taking depressed stay-at-home mothers and helping them become happy, fulfilled stay-at-home mothers (perhaps with more help from fathers seeing as we’re not being sexist), then I wonder if that’s really what all of her patients really need. Maybe it is. But maybe some of those mothers needed something else – be it a career, more community support as #35/36 say, etc. Some of us can be great parents if it’s more like 148 or 128 hours per week, but are much less able to pull it off 168 hours a week. Or 168 – X 50-minute therapy sessions.

If the book thinks that using babysitting clubs, grandparents, siblings and other unpaid childcare counts as full-time parenting, but daycare of any stripe is unloving, then Gerhart has merely found a new way to hurt women (and their equality-committed men) and marginalize our concerns. Yeah, families including kids would be better off working fewer than 80 hours a week without becoming poor. So call me when society has been reorganized and reassure me that this isn’t burdening women in effect, whatever the good intent.


Laura 05.04.06 at 10:17 pm

I think that the problem with the whole daycare debate is that what’s good for kids isn’t necessarily good for women and visa versa. Sometimes the interests of the kids and the parents line up nicely; sometimes they don’t. It might be good for kids to be raised at home full time by a parent, but it might not be good for the woman to be bored and underappreciated at home.

But shouldn’t we be interested in what goes on in daycare? I haven’t read this book, so I can’t defend the author. But maybe she makes some good claims. Maybe she has done some interesting research and makes distinctions between good and bad daycare. Just because her findings will be inconvenient and even disturbing, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hear them.

If her points are valid, then we have to come up with some new political remedies and to question the all work all the time mentality.


cw 05.04.06 at 10:56 pm

A couple comments. There are different kinds of daycares. There is the big center with a baby room and a high turnover, and there is the home center where a the provider takes two or three babies and cares for them until they are 2 or 3. And then there are all kinds of schedules. From a few hours a week to 12 hours day all day. Unless these differences are accounted for, I don;’t see how you can make such big generalizations as it seems like the author is making.

Also, as many people have pointed out, the ages the author is talking about is important. A 6 month old is very different from a two year old. So again. Unless you’re specific about what ages you are talking about, your generalizations are not going to be worth much.

And then, we all know that there are a wide range of parenting styles, and with in those styles a wide range of parenting abilities. We also know that parenting styles have changed over the years. Again, unless these issues are addressed, I don’t see how you can say anything abou “children” and “daycare.”

And finally, the studies I have seen about daycare–who knows how good they are–have found very, very slight differences. Kids who spent a lot of time in daycares were slightly more aggressive was what I have seen.

I totally believe that how a child is raised effects their development, but I think it’s very, very complicated and I also think that what we see as “good” development and parenting practices is continualy changing. It also varies by culture. So I don’t think its something one book by one psychiatrist can solve, especially one that (as far as I can tell from the description) doesn’t seem to take acount of all the many variables. In fact, this doesn’t seem like something a book like this–which is basically an argument supported by a few studies–is of much use at all. I think what is needed is a lot more studies. More studies, less theories.


Laura 05.05.06 at 6:16 am

I will also point out that there have been studies done on Sweden and Norway’s leave system to show that men are less likely to take advantage of it. In the US, men taking more responsibility for parenting would require a cultural shift of monumental proportions. As somebody said above, call me when that happens.


Laura 05.05.06 at 7:43 am

laura b., don’t you think that studies like this one that show that mega hours of bad daycare hurts kids could provide some political leverage to make changes. If men and business leaders aren’t confronted with the facts, then they have no incentive to change. I guess I haven’t given up on men yet.


Harry B 05.05.06 at 8:00 am

Some of the comments certainly make me think I haven’t represented the book as well as I could have. It is no part of Gerhardt’s mission to blame people for the choices they make, and I think she recognizes the important point that Laura makes, that what is best for the child and what is best for the parent may not coincide. Most of the book concerns what is actually going on inside the kid (as far as we can discern), and in the course of it she says a lot of sensible things, which are valuable whether you use daycare or not, about how we should treat our children when we are with them; a great deal of which, for me, articulated what I already knew but couldn’t have articulated. Her main policy objective is to get more paid parental leave and more support for mental health care(of parents and children), and yes, she particularly thinks that full time daycare is not the best thing, at least for under-2s, and that policy should reflect this judgement. At present policy in the US is pro-daycare and strongly against parental leave (subsidizing one but not the other, for instance).

Now I’m speaking as me, not as her, because I don’t quite know what to attribute to her, although full time daycare for the under-2s is not the best thing, it might well be good enough. Laura’s point cuts both ways; we shouldn’t just assume that what is best for the parent is best for the child.

Also, it may be right that an economy that faciliated more flexible hours (and in which we worked fewer hours) would result in fewer women staying home full time, and more staying home part time; that’s a good point, and makes sense to me. It might also facilitate the cultural revolution that would be needed for men to do a great deal more childrearing. As I said in the original post, the all-work-all-the-time program does not facilitate that; it ensures that women do most childcaring, just women who are paid to do it.


paul 05.05.06 at 8:26 am

As soon as anyone describes daycare as “cared for by strangers” I find it difficult not to write them off as hopelessly biased. In the state where I live, the required ratio of caregivers to infants/toddlers is 1:3.5 (yeah, make up your own punchline) and turnover is typically at a level where children will have the same set of caregivers for much of their tenure in daycare.

Meanwhile, even if it is true that “one to one” attention is best for infants and small children, even with fulltime stay-at-home parenting, only first offspring or siblings with unusually long spacing will ever experience that one-to-one attention. It sounds very much as if Gerhardt is setting up a picture of utopian (in the original sense) child-rearing practices and then talking about how daycare in particular (oh, yes, and much stay-at-home care too, but not as loudly) cannot possibly live up to the ideal.

It’s clear that (in the US at least) conditions of work for most families should be rearranged to be less hostile to children. But even now, one of the unnoticed benefits of feminism is that it’s not considered perfectly reasonable for a mother to hate her children for destroying all of her hopes and ambitions. A small step, but a step.


Sue Gerhardt 05.05.06 at 8:45 am

Great to see so much discussion of Why Love Matters, the themes are familiar since in the UK many have responded to the political questions it raises re daycare rather than to the science it presents. My aim was for people to know more about how a baby’s brain develops, and to understand that it develops interactively- so that we can make informed decisions about the kind of early caregiving we provide. There is still a lack of awareness that very early development is largely about EMOTIONAL development.
(By the way, Joe O., the paper on cortisol you quote doesn’t deal with neonates, it is looking at twin studies in general which to me is quite meaningless. The stress response which produces cortisol is set up in the first 6 months or so, and if that period of life is over-stressed,the stress response will be “set” to over-react or under-react. Unless you compare neonates you are simply comparing environmental influences.)
If we want to provide our children with good emotional foundations, in the form of a balanced stress response and good development of the pre-frontal cortex and other areas of the emotional brain, we have to think about what THEY need in the period when these emotion systems are developing. I think that infants need relationships that keep them in a reasonably stress-free state, with people who respond positively to them as potential, emerging personalities and pay attention to who they are becoming over time. In theory very expensive daycare with key workers who take care of “their” babies, who are paid well enough to stay over a period of years, and love their job enough to turn up when they have a hangover, etc, could provide a baby with the essentials. But in practice studies have found that daycare workers do have high turnover, and have in the past been reluctant to get involved emotionally with their charges. Many nurseries have a harsh ethos, urging premature independence. Some studies have found that children in daycare are stressed (have high cortisol) even when they appear to have adjusted.
On the other hand, there are studies that show that if a child has established a secure attachment to their parent before they attend daycare, that relationship will not be affected by attending daycare. Daycare has the worst effects on children who are not secure (in attachment terms) in their own families.
But attachment security takes time to develop, most of the first year, so it still brings us back to parental care for at least the first year unless things are not good at home.
As Harry suggests, my conclusion from years of study is that daycare is not the best place for babies and toddlers, but has real benefits for children from the age of about 2 or 3.
I do see myself as a feminist, but I think we have to recognise that it is time for a rethink of our attitudes to work and childcare. I agree with Ingrid that we don’t just want women to have the option to join the man’s world, we need something more radical where caring for children (and each other) is given more value. I personally think that for one individual, man or woman, to be stuck at home 24/7 with a small baby drives many people crazy and is not what humans were designed for..our ancestors brought up children in small groups. So I am much more interested in solutions that involve fathers in childcare, and the local community too, and give women and men a balance between adult participation and caring for their own small child.


Laura 05.05.06 at 9:06 am

harry, there is also the degree question. How bad is full time daycare? I’m willing to trade a little of my kid’s happiness for mine. I found breast feeding to be a giant pain in the ass and never made it the recommended one year marker. I put my kid in a small amount of bad daycare, because I had to finish my dissertation. I let my kids watch TV and forget to brush their teeth. Still, I’m sure that those trangressions aren’t going to turn my kids into psycho-killers.

I’m looking forward to reading the book to find out more about Gerhardt’s research and methodology. I’ve got too many questions for a blog comment.


Harry B 05.05.06 at 9:19 am


right, I think that’s important, and as someone pointed out much further up, most of the evidence about these things concerns i) large amounts of daycare and, perhaps more complicatedly, ii) the risks of extremely bad outcomes (severe depression, being a psycho-killer… oh, no, not that one). So it is hard to make judgments about middling amounts of daycare and the relationship to middling outcomes. Its all about probabilities and costs, and for parents as well as children.


andy 05.05.06 at 9:21 am

Harry, I think some of the “misrepresentation” of Gerhardt’s book that you’re seeing can be explained by the emotionally charged subject matter, coupled with the fact that most of us probably haven’t read the book yet. I picked it up yesterday at the library and read the first three chapters last night, and am finding it quite interesting. But as the parent of two children and of a third soon to arrive, I can’t help but read the book with an eye on both my own parenting and the emotional development of my children, and of myown emotional development and the parenting of my parents. I imagine this is something that psychologists must struggle with when reading about mental health: “does this diagnose ME?”. Particularly when the daycare topic arises in these comments, I think I can see some of that happening here. I say this just to put in a good word for the book, which I wouldn’t want to see ignored just because it might make claims that one could take as critical of one’s childraising.


cw 05.05.06 at 9:23 am

I haven’t read the book, but I bet the author’s recommended childrearing practices match what has been recognized by other sources in the US as the current white middle-class child-rearing practice of choice (that was not a great sentence). Basically, the infant gets lots of physical and verbal attention, is carried rather than pushed in a stroller, is included in adult activities, is constantly read to and played with, etc…. I have seen (second hand) some evidence that suggest that this does a better job of developing the brain and also is the reason middle-class white kids start school with an advantage over their poorer counterparts.

Any child-rearing strategy is a cultural phenomenon and has cultural implications. Some people talk about this as a better way to raise a child–and it may well be–but you have to remember that we are judging this by end results which usually mean favorable educational results. We raise kids this way, they do better in school, schools we have designed to get certain kinds of results.

I’m not sure how this parenting style came about. it is a recent development. I think “experts” like Dr. Spock had something to do with it, as has later brain research. Anyway, white middle-class parents have been especially receptive to certain kinds of recommendations, and I think it is becasue they believe it will improve their child’s school performance. Not always consciously, maybe. But the rational behind all the recommendations are usually intellectual and academic. Read to your kid so your kid will be a better reader. Explain to your kid what you are doing through out the day so that they will make multiple synaptic connections and therefor develope better critical thinking skill. Or whatever. And this makes sense because how well you do in school in our society, especially for the middle-class, determines to a huge extent how will you will do in adult life.

Anyway, I have no real point, I just think it’s interesting and beneficial to think about child-rearing practices from a cultural standpoint. How did these strategies come about? What is the ideal adult these strategies are supposed to create? And the fact that this current child-rearing strategy is being more and more promoted is a cultural phenomnon in and of itself and worth of being examined.


Harry B 05.05.06 at 9:35 am

andy; I’m in exactly the same situation (2 already, 1 on the way) and had exactly the same experience of reading the book as you; maybe it would have been useful to say more about that, but I felt it would be too intrusive. I don’t see how anyone could read it and not have that reaction. I think one of the questions you have (if you still have more kids to start raising) is “how can I do what is right about this for the baby?” In my own case I have two girls, and the one on the way is a boy, and I couldn’t help thinking a lot about how to try and ensure that the boy will be more emotionally literate than I am, or at least was as a boy and young man; more like my girls than I was. Oh, and congratulations!


dearieme 05.05.06 at 10:01 am

Jake. I disagree: cohort studies are what you do when you can’t do controlled experiments; they are always second best.


james 05.05.06 at 11:07 am

On the gender issue: to be blunt, as a broad generalisation, women like babies more than men do. They want babies more than men do, want more of them, and want them earlier in life. I’m not sure culture is the sole culprit for this. I think at the root of it is possibly to do with having a womb vs. having to find someone with a womb means men and women form different life plans and aspirations. Which means they place a different levels of importance on having kids.

I think many men will have kids if someone else will look after them and they don’t have to sacrifice their careers, but also wouldn’t find not having kids all that terrible. Whereas women are more more eager to have them, and more willing to make sacrifices by opting out of employment. So I’m not sure getting men and women equally committed to childcare is all that possible. I think many men would only choose kids given that someone else does the dirty work.


Laura 05.05.06 at 11:21 am

Thanks, Sue, for expanding on harry’s post. I’m looking forward to reading your book to learn more about specifics of your study. I think we need new solutions to properly care for children and to enable parents to provide care without losing their marbles in the solitude of a home.

You wrote: “So I am much more interested in solutions that involve fathers in childcare, and the local community too, and give women and men a balance between adult participation and caring for their own small child.”

Do you write about policy and politics in this book?


Laura 05.06.06 at 6:52 am

I’m fascinated by the discussion and am glad to see the author herself weighing in. James, watch the biological essentialism there. That’s a pretty nasty case you’ve got.

I’m wondering what studies like this will do for policy. I mentioned earlier that many policies put in place to allow parents to stay home in those first crucial years of life are not used by men, meaning that we are back to putting the burden of childrearing on women. I like Sue’s idea of thinking a bit more radically, but I’m not optimistic that we can get off this tragectory we’re on that continues to devalue the work of caring for people (the very young and the very old). I think it’s going to take a sea change at the governmental level, but also in many, many industries.


pedro f 05.06.06 at 10:45 am

I’ve just started to read the book. For what it’s worth, I absolutely love it so far, and I’m so thankful to Harry for bringing it to attention just as I’m getting ready to be a father for the first time.

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