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Universal daycare debate deserves more than a brawl

According to its advocates, the curative powers of universal, subsidized daycare are almost endless. It is the next step toward a fair and just society. National daycare, once a Liberal dream, is now a major plank in the platform of the NDP. High quality, regulated daycare is good for children, parents, the economy and society at large.

It stimulates cognitive development, and it promotes socialization and school-readiness. Parents (especially mothers) are freer to pursue work and careers, without the burden of having to scrounge for iffy, unregulated and frequently unaffordable child-care arrangements.

It lowers the wage gap, and because more women stay in the labour force, the economy benefits as well. Ultimately, the money invested in daycare more than pays off in better economic performance and more productive citizens. As one columnist argued in Maclean's, "Cheap daycare is the answer to Canada's stagnating economy."

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Are there any downsides? Er, maybe. Although mentioning them will get you labelled as a rabid, right-wing reactionary.

For the record, Kevin Milligan isn't one of those. He is a mild-mannered economist at the University of British Columbia, who sometimes offers economic advice to the Liberals. This week, he and two colleagues published a new paper arguing that exposure to Quebec's daycare program has a bad long-term impact on kids' behaviour, especially that of boys. It makes them more impulsive, more aggressive, more hyperactive and more anxious – and these effects persist, with negative consequences in later life. The researchers even draw a link between Quebec's daycare and a rise in teenage criminality.

Naturally, daycare advocates dismissed the research as fatally flawed. One critic tweeted that it was "a pile of crap." On its website, the NDP is accusing Justin Trudeau of trying to whip up anti-NDP support – despite the fact that the Liberals had nothing to do with the report or its timing.

I'm not going to defend the study's methodology. Other economists (even non-right-wing ones) have done that. I'll merely point out that a small mountain of research has found that daycare, along with universal kindergarten, doesn't particularly benefit the majority of kids, and does hurt some. The cognitive benefits, if any, are fleeting. The idea that these programs create smarter and more capable citizens is just wishful thinking.

On the plus side (if you think it's a plus), daycare does have a big impact on mothers' ability to work. Whether this boosts the economy is arguable. There's not much evidence for it in Quebec.

Quebec's daycare program has been operating for 15 years. About half the province's kids use it. So it's a giant natural experiment that should yield valuable information. Prof. Milligan and his colleagues chose to focus on non-cognitive skills – such things as persistence, impulse control, and the ability to get along with other people – because they are critically important. "If kids are in an early life environment where they pick up good skills, it has a really big impact on their later life outcomes," he explained in a radio interview this week.

Under certain circumstances, early intervention can build skills. The Perry Preschool Project, conducted back in the 1960s, was a small-scale, high intensity program for a handful of extremely disadvantaged kids. It had a marked positive impact on their behavioural skills that lasted through adulthood. But in Quebec, the reverse appears to be true. Why? This study doesn't speculate, but it's an important question. Let's hope researchers can work on it before prime minister Mulcair starts rolling out $15 daycare for the nation.

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For what it's worth, some experts in child development think they have a clue. Daycare and early schooling, they argue, prematurely disrupt the attachment bonds between children and their parents. Six hours a day in school or daycare is just too long for a lot of little kids to be separated from the most important people in their lives.

Are children better socialized in daycare?

Vancouver's Dr. Gordon Neufeld unequivocally says no. In his co-authored book, Hold On To Your Kids, he argues that they merely become socialized to bond with their peers instead of with their parents. And that's not good. Peers can't possibly replace the nurturing, maturity, comfort, security and guidance that parents provide. Even the best-trained daycare worker is no substitute. Kids who are separated from their parents too early get stressed out and anxious, and develop behaviour problems. Dr. Neufeld, a developmental psychologist, thinks daycare and early childhood education advocates disregard the developmental evidence: Early childhood programs have nothing to offer "except parental emancipation."

Ouch. At the very least, it should be clear by now that universal child care is no silver bullet. Even James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who is a big proponent of early childhood interventions, says that universal daycare is not a good idea.

But evidence is awkward when ideals are at risk. Daycare has been so politicized that people can't have a rational discussion about it. (For the record, I have little people in my life who've spent a lot of time in daycare, and are magnificently well adjusted.) As well, the possibility that daycare may have negative effects on children is highly inconvenient to the parental (mainly maternal) dilemma of having to choose between child-rearing and paid work. We'd really, really like to believe there's no tradeoff.

On top of that, child-rearing is hideously expensive. Personally, I think there are plenty of arguments for socializing more of the cost. But is universal care the way to do it? I don't think so. It's an extremely expensive, one-size-fits-all solution for a multifaceted problem. Also – and this is a big strike against it – it doesn't do much, if anything, to help the most disadvantaged kids.

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I'll leave the last word to the besieged Prof. Milligan, who wants to remind his critics that his job is analysis, not advocacy: "My role is to inject some facts into the public debate." More, please.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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