The Mental Health of America's Preschoolers

For years I’ve been lamenting the great social experiment in which America has been engaged these past several decades: sending our babies and toddlers off to day care in record numbers. While the correlation between long hours in child care and increased behavioral problems in young children has been clear for some time, apparently we’ve up the ante. According to Sue Shellenbarger’s work and family column in The Wall Street Journal, 29 states in America -- along with a few cities -- now offer mental health services to our nation’s three and four-year-olds. Mental health services to our nation’s 3 and 4 year olds. “From 9.5% to 14.2% of children under 6 have emotional problems serious enough to hurt their ability to function, including anxiety or behavioral disorders,” writes Shellenbarger. Another study by the Archives of General Psychiatry found depression in children “as young as 3.” Lynn Hopson, executive director of a New Haven, CT preschool says, “We’re seeing more and more children with challenging behaviors every year.”

What, we ask ourselves, has happened to cause these little ones such distress? In our hearts, we know. We know instinctively, whether we admit it or not, that parents abdicate too much of their responsibility to substitute caregivers. Despite common sense and hard evidence, Americans refuse to connect the dots between the existence of routine child care and the physical and emotional well-being of our children. Instead, we allow ourselves to be swayed – even if it goes against our gut. In learning about the mental health trend, Shellenbarger’s response was this: “The idea of assigning mental health workers to child care centers and preschools is jarring; I was skeptical when I first heard the idea. Children so small shouldn’t need mental-health help.” This paragraph is then followed by the word “However.” Apparently Shellenbarger was sufficiently convinced that mental-health programs benefit “entire classrooms of children by reducing behavior problems and supporting overburdened teachers.” Maybe they do. But it’s a mistake to think that’s all there is to it. Children are masterful at hiding their true identities; just because they comply doesn’t mean the problem is solved.

The issue of child care in this country is not unlike divorce. Since the 1970s, Americans have chosen to believe it’s better for children if their unhappily married parents divorce. This is not unlike the argument that children whose mothers are unhappy at home are better off in day care. But Judith Wallerstein’s 25-year landmark study about children of divorce, which she chronicles in her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, demonstrates that it isn’t as simple as we think. Yes, children will adapt to whatever their circumstances may be -- they have no choice -- but the effects of divorce become shrouded behind subsequent negative behaviors or depression. Indeed, almost every point Wallerstein makes about America’s divorce culture can be applied to the child care culture. “A depressed child,” writes Wallerstein, “often goes unnoticed in school. [Children] learn to comply with adult demands but without a growing inner sense of confidence and direction.”

According to Shellenbarger’s article, the purpose of having mental-health specialists in preschools is, among other things, to “provide targeted, expert help to teachers and parents on ways to interact with children.” But it’s not preschool teachers who need help in learning how to interact with children. It’s parents. Parents are the folks who need an education in how to parent, and we can start by telling them that too much child care is a bad thing. To be sure, age-appropriate preschools are harder to find these days; but they do exist. When I was searching for a preschool for my children, I found two schools that operate like old-fashioned nursery schools. How could I tell? One was in the name – Eliot Chapel Nursery School – but the most obvious way to determine whether a preschool functions as a preschool (vs. a day care) is in the number of hours the children are allowed to attend. This has been a great source of conflict for nursery schools that wish to remain nursery schools. Until recently, nursery schools allowed parents to drop their 3 and 4 years-olds off for 2-3 hours at a time – several days a week. Today the average “preschool” (often a pseudonym for day care) offers parents the option of dropping Johnny off every day -- for up to six hours. This didn’t happen because preschool directors all the sudden decided children prefer to be in school all day, or because they believe – as President Obama does – that kids this age need more academic instruction. On the contrary, it happened because parents demanded it. They demanded it for their own reasons – whatever they may be – and the choice of preschools to cave into these demands has resulted in “9.5% to 14.2% of children under 6” suffering from “emotional problems.”

The truth is that the emotional well-being of our youngest citizens has been at stake for several decades, but it takes about this long to see the results of any social movement. If you’re like Obama, you believe America should “invest in early childhood education by dramatically expanding programs to ensure all of our young children are ready to enter kindergarten” – which means you believe the more exposure children have to child care and preschool, the smarter and better socialized they will be. If, on the other hand, you know instinctually, or from experience, or from the plethora of research now available, that it is children’s emotional development that matters during the early years, you will agree with the critics of these new mental-health programs -- who they believe “hit the wrong target,” writes Shellenbarger. As Lisa Snell, education director for the Reason Foundation, says, “Negative behavior in general seems to be an unintended consequence of every child going to preschool at younger and younger ages.”

What Americans need to know – but do not know because the media won’t tell them – is that the early years are critical for children to develop intangible traits such as as empathy, trust, and confidence. The best and only way for a child to develop these traits is by spending the bulk of their waking hours with a parent. As Diane Fisher, Ph.D., said in a 1997 congressional testimony, “Science cannot quantify important social qualities such as compassion, courage, character, and moral vision. These traits are inextricably linked with attachment and emotional development. Do we really believe these and other important values can be reduced to learning objectives and effectively taught in all-day early childhood group settings?”

Indeed, the idea that very young children require formal instruction is patently false, and shows a marked ignorance on the part of those who argue otherwise. It’s true that children from low-income families -- whose parents are often divorced, drug-addicted, or poor -- can benefit from high-quality child care (“high quality” being the operative phrase); but to suggest this same theory applies to the middle-class is simply false. If we spent half the amount of time, money, and energy trying to strengthen the American family as we spend on child care – and the subsequent mental health programs to fix the problems brought on by child care – America would be a much stronger nation.

1 Response to “The Mental Health of America's Preschoolers”:

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just ran across this blog as a reference from Patrice Lewis and was checking it over. On these particular comments I have some grave questions about the mental health system. I see no real good evidence that they know what they are doing. As far as I'm concerned their expertize is strongly suspect. I think it a good idea to keep a close watch on them.