Day-Care Boys – Acting Like Mean Girls

The problem of adolescent bullying has attracted a great deal of attention in the media and in public-policy forums in recent years. Curiously, journalists and policymakers rarely acknowledge one of the root causes of that bullying—namely, America’s increasing reliance on the day-care center as a replacement for the at-home mother. But the role of the day-care center in incubating bullying has recently come to light in an illuminating study of gender-typed aggression, a study revealing that boys who spend a lot of time in day care as toddlers are curiously likely to behave like the cattiest girls when they are in middle school.

Completed by researchers affiliated with the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) Early Child Care Research Network, this new study focuses particularly on “relational aggression” among boys and girls ages eight through eleven. Defined as “behaviors that harm others through damage (or the threat of damage) to relationships or feelings of acceptance, friendship, or group inclusion,” relational aggression has not yet been fully explained by social scientists. But this NICHD team seeks to shed light on its antecedents, its development, and its dynamics.

At the outset, the scholars recognize that relational aggression fits within a larger typology of aggression and that aggression of all sorts may be affected by early childcare. Indeed, in explaining their research agenda, the NICH investigators cite a number of earlier studies linking non-maternal childcare to childhood aggression. They note, for instance, a 2003 study finding that “any type of [nonparental] child care from 6–54 months of age was associated with aggressive behavior reported by caregivers at 54 months and teachers at kindergarten.” They also point to research evidence from the same period implicating “center-based care . . . with externalizing problems and conflict with adults.” A 2007 study of interest to the NICHD team established that “more exposure to center care during infancy and preschool . . . predicted more teacher-reported externalizing problems in Grade 6.” What is more, a 2010 study concluded that “more time in any type of [nonparental] child care through 54 months predicted self-reports of impulsivity and risk-taking at age 15.”

Against this backdrop of earlier research, the scholars assess data for relational aggression for 558 boys and 545 girls ages eight to eleven. These data indicate that more time spent in day care in early childhood predicts a statistically significant elevation in the relational aggression manifest by the boys in the study sample, but not by the girls. This finding surprises the researchers, who acknowledge that most psychologists regard relational aggression as a distinctively female type of aggression, while physical aggression is much more typically male.

To interpret their curious finding that day care fosters relational aggression among boys but not girls, the researchers turn to earlier research finding “a stronger correlation between relational and physical aggression for boys than for girls.” “Possibly,” the researchers reason, “boys will use any aggressive tactic available if one is needed, but girls are more selective.”

Still, it disturbs the researchers that their data reveal that relational aggression among boys predicts both risk-taking and delinquency, the correlation with risk-taking running especially high. In such unsettling findings, the researchers see “support for the hypothesis that non-normative relational aggression in boys would be more detrimental to their adjustment than would be normative relational aggression in girls.”

The evidence continues to mount that America has hurt children by moving them out of in-home maternal care into day-care centers. As anyone who truly cares about those children will realize, this latest study makes it all too clear that those crusading against bullying very much need to take that evidence to heart.

(Susan J. Spieker et al., “Relational Aggression in Middle Childhood: Predictors and Adolescent Outcomes,” Social Development 21.2 [2012]: 354-75.)