UCI News

Balancing act

Alison Clarke-Stewart weighs research findings with a healthy dose of common sense

by Karen Morris | August 29, 2002

Psychologist Alison Clarke-Stewart’s research has placed her on the cutting edge of controversy for more than 30 years.

Her 1970s Yale University doctoral dissertation on mothers and babies helped set off a decades-long national debate over “quality time.”

Her study of day care in the 1980s shocked many with findings that children in day care centers had advanced abilities over children at home.

In the 1990s, she found that children of divorce in their fathers’ custody showed greater self-esteem and well-being.

A 1991 child study took a close look at children’s suggestibility, with important implications for their reliability as witnesses in court.

More recently, a national child-care study in which she is a principal investigator has found that children who have been in day care as infants and preschoolers are more aggressive in kindergarten.

When Clarke-Stewart began her lifelong study of early childhood and the family, Head Start was new, day-care facilities few. She was headed for graduate school at Yale, but had not yet found a compelling focus for her research. In the summer of 1968, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. brought an epiphany: “I wanted to make the world a better place—I felt I should be doing something socially useful.”

At a time when early child care and parental roles were coming under increasing scrutiny, it seemed particularly useful to examine how young children’s skills and relationships are affected by their social environments, from interactions with mother to dads and siblings to school-mates and teachers.

By the time she received her doctorate in psychology, Clarke-Stewart was receiving national media attention for her dissertation findings that a mother’s satisfaction with her role as worker or homemaker is more important for the quality of the time she spends with her children than whether or not she works and for her book showing that children may benefit socially and intellectually from day care.

“Then I did a child-care study at the University of Chicago [where she was professor of education and behavioral science], and the die was cast,” she says.

Today, Clarke-Stewart is recognized by policy-makers and the press as a leading expert in child care and parenting. She has gained national prominence as a principal investigator in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s 10-year study of 1,300 children in day care, which is conducted at 10 universities around the country. Among its findings are that preschoolers in high-quality day care or child-care facilities performed better on tests of language, knowledge and memory, and that the more time children spend in child care before age 5, the more likely they will show behavior problems in kindergarten and first grade.

With most mothers of young children working outside the home, the issue for parents is no longer whether to send children to day care, but how to ensure quality care.

“The continuing thread of the study is whether there is any continuing fallout from being in child care,” Clarke-Stewart says.

She notes that 30 years ago, a small minority of infants was in day care; now about two-thirds are.

“That indicates that attitudes are changing,” she says. “Had we adopted a national commitment to quality child care in the 1970s, we could have come to a point where parents would choose whether, where and when to put a child in day care, just as they might choose a car that best meets the family’s needs, price range and so on. But 30 years later, it’s still an emotional issue. Parents are still torn by guilt about putting their children in care.”

Now a professor of psychology and social behavior in the School of Social Ecology, Clarke-Stewart also has spent a great deal of time studying the emotional issue of divorce. Her 1989 findings that fathers with custody were better off after divorce (chiefly due to greater economic stability) and so were their children struck a nerve not only with the public, but within her own home.

“I’d served as an expert witness on the subject, telling the court about what other psychologists had found in their research, and I was raising my own son as a single parent,” she recalls. “The findings from my research went against what I had said in court, against what I did in my own life.”

If research doesn’t dovetail neatly with real life, Clarke-Stewart tries to apply her findings as a rule of thumb, rather than a rule of law. “ If I’m giving advice to parents,” she says, “I always try to balance research with common sense, taking into account individual preferences and the hand the person has been dealt.”

The lasting effects on children of divorce continue to be a deep concern. Clarke-Stewart teaches an undergraduate class at UCI on the impacts of divorce, in which she asks the students to write an autobiography of their parents’ divorce and analyze it (at least half the students who take the class have been through a divorce in their family).

“These kids are not going around talking about their problems,” she says, but the divorce continues to affect their lives. In the hope that the insight her students gain from analyzing their own stories could be helpful to other children of divorce, Clarke-Stewart is writing a book based on their work.

She’s also starting a new study looking at potential jurors’ knowledge of children’s suggestibility. She’s done three studies on the children’s suggestibility, originally inspired by the highly publicized McMartin pre-school abuse case in Los Angeles. Clarke-Stewart and her colleagues found that young children may be influenced by their questioners, making their reliability as court witnesses problematic.

While she focuses on research rather than advocacy, Clarke-Stewart’s work continues to reflect—and influence—the way we raise our children. The research may not determine social policy, but it is helpful for supporting it, she says.

“If we didn’t keep showing the association between child-care quality and how well children do, perhaps there would be even less support for high quality care.”