How to make a difference when your kids are in day care

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The headlines were enough to make any working parent cringe: Lots of day care can lead to bad behavior.

But child-development experts say don’t waste your time worrying — there’s plenty you can do to offset potential problems that won’t require you to quit your job.

“Putting your kid in day care will not, de facto, lead your kid to problems later in life. No study has ever shown that,” says family therapist Hal Runkel, author of “Scream Free Parenting: Raising Your Kids By Keeping Your Cool.” The federal study, which tracked more than 1,300 children, found that the more time children spent in day care, the more likely they were to be disruptive in the classroom. But the difference was small — around a 1 percent increase for each year in day care — that’s within the normal range for healthy children.

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Here’s what you can do:

—Choose a good child-care provider and stay involved.

“Unfortunately, child-care workers are paid very little. And yet we expect a lot from them. There are some great child-care centers out there, but you have to look,” says Joanne Baum, therapist and author of “Got the Baby, Where’s the Manual?,” which includes a checklist for evaluating the care.

“Make sure they and you aren’t giving your child mixed messages about proper behavior. Day-care staffs change frequently, so it’s important to reassess your child’s care regularly.”

“I recently worked with a boy who had four teachers in six months. Imagine having four bosses in six months,” says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of “Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep?”

—Limit the time your child spends in outside care.

“After eight or nine hours in group care, stress hormones go up in toddlers even in quality care,” Kurcinka says. She suggests parents adjust their schedules so that one can drop off the child later in the morning and the other can do an earlier pickup.

—Prepare yourself for pickup time and evening hours.

“Put on your own oxygen mask first. Do whatever it takes to put yourself in the best frame of mind before you pick them up,” Runkel says. “If that means stopping off and getting a decaf latte before you go in, do it.”

Baum suggests that in two-parent families, each parent should give the other a 20-minute break as soon as they can after arriving home. “Spell each other,” she says.

—Simplify your life; stress is contagious.

“If one of the most frequent things you’re saying is, ’Hurry up!,’ you’re overscheduled. You must stop and recognize that and make some changes,” Kurcinka says. “If we’re saying, ’Get in the car!’, then the kids turn around and say that to other adults and children.”

Sleep, healthy food and exercise should be emphasized, Kurcinka says. That can minimize stress and the poor behavior it can cause.

“Listen to the kids,” Kurcinka says. “When they are saying they’re having a tough morning, say, ’OK, we’re a problem-solving family. Mommy’s got to get to work and you really need this — what can we do that we work together?”’

—Be consistent.

It’s vital for parents to set up clear, consistent rules and calmly enforce them, Baum says. “Some parents feel guilty that they’ve got the kid in the day-care center. So when they’ve got the kids, they’re overindulging them. They don’t set limits,” she says. “The kid is always testing, you’re always giving in.”