A review of Children First. By Penelope Leach.

Michael Joseph, 1994.

Dr Penelope Leach of the UK, a world-renowned child psychologist, has just written a new book entitled Children First.  It’s a pretty damning indictment of modern society and the way it treats children.  Moreover, it has generated a lot of controversy.  The former director of the Institute of Family Studies went ballistic over the book, claiming it was “the most inconsistent, guilt-producing book you could possibly imagine.”

Just what has she said that has caused such a reaction?  Dr Leach, it may be recalled, has been called the Dr Spock of the 80s and 90s, and has written a number of books on child development which have been sold in the millions and translated into 30 languages.  She is no crank or kook, therefore, but a highly respected author and educator.

The book, as it turns out, is not as monstrous as it is made out to be. Her main theme is this: “Our society is inimical to children and has therefore devalued parents to such an extent that individual good parenting is not only exceedingly difficult but, ultimately, insufficient.”  The rest of the book gives evidence of this assertion, evidence which seems to be pretty undeniable.  Modern society does tend to treat people as consumer objects – men and women are valued for what they produce and consume.   Children and parents are simply given scant recognition in today’s culture.  Popular culture tends to overlook them altogether.

These are not wild claims, and Dr Leach is not some rabid right-wing “back-to-the-traditional-family” fanatic.  In fact, in the book she makes it quite clear that she rejects this position, and sees no reason to return to some nostalgic view of the family.

So while people like Bettina Cass, the chair of the Year of the Family Council, can claim that family breakdown is a “myth”, most people would agree with Dr Leach that families are in trouble, that children at best are taken for granted, and that parents are a neglected and often under-supported lot.

One suspects that the real cause of concern over the book is Dr Leach’s position on day care.  Simply put, she believes that young children who spend extended periods in day care are at risk – emotionally, psychologically and  otherwise.  An abundance of studies have made it clear that what babies and toddlers need most is the continuous one-to-one attention of a caregiver.  This can rarely be obtained in group care.  For one thing, the ratio of children to staff is often 15 to 1, or worse, and secondly, there is a very high turnover rate of staff at day care centres.  Thus, no matter how excellent a facility may be, it can never replace a mother’s love.  Common sense, as well as sociological studies, bear this out.

Now even Dr Leach admits that there is not widespread agreement on the negative effects of extended periods of day care.  But if there is uncertainty, then it seems to me that the benefit of doubt should go in favour of children, and those who argue that day care does not harm children should bear the burden of proof.

Look at it this way: it is a bit like going to a doctor who tells you an injection might be a) very harmful; b) moderately harmful; or c) effects are unknown.  Most people wouldn’t take the injection under those circumstances.  The same here –  if we are not certain about the long-term effects of day care on young children, why unnecessarily put them at risk?  Why treat them as guinea pigs?

Moreover, why does the media tend to only cover studies that purport to show the benefits of child care?  As Leach puts it: “When media report, even editorialise, on the effects of daycare on children, they usually pick on positive studies and select their most positive results. . . . There are equally authoritative, sometimes more subtle and recent, studies that raise serious concerns about the effects of daycare on young children; none has received comparable coverage.”

But common sense tells us that young children desperately need their mums: “It is clearly and certainly best for babies to have something close to full-time mother care for six months at least – conveniently linked with breast-feeding – and family care for a further year and better two.  Using financial or career penalties to blackmail women into leaving infants who are scarcely settled into life outside wombs that are still bleeding is no less than barbarous.”

She goes on, “However carefully she is fed, washed and protected, and however many mobiles are hung for her, a baby’s overall care is not good enough to ensure her optimal development unless she is constantly with people who know her as an individual and who always have the time (and usually the inclination) to listen to and answer her; to cuddle and play, show and share.  These are the people she will attach herself to and that attachment matters.”

But of course the hostility to Dr Leach and others who urge caution in putting kids in day care comes from the feminist lobby which is determined hell or high water to get women – and mothers – into the paid work force at all costs. Thus in typical fashion the Sydney Morning Herald (30-3) assures us that  women should not feel guilty about abandoning their children to the day care mills, and that Dr Leach is basically espousing nonsense.  They just don’t believe that women want to stay at home with their small children.

And that is the real issue – both the government and its feminist cronies are terrified to admit that if women were given real choice as to home care vs institutional care, most would opt for the former.  Survey after survey has shown that most mothers of young children would prefer to be at home, but economic necessity coupled with discriminatory government practices have forced many of them into the paid workforce.

The issue is not one of forcing women to stay at home – the issue is one of choice.   If mothers want to put their children in daycare, fine.  But mothers who want to stay at home should be freely allowed to do so as well.  Nor is the issue that all daycare is bad.  Obviously there are some good daycare centres and some devoted daycare staff.  But children do not need “expert” professionals, they need committed carers, and who better than parents to provide that commitment and love? Says Leach, “It is parents’ unique tendency to consider their children uniquely wonderful that makes them so special.  Professionals can be helpful to parents but they cannot replace them because, however much they know about children in general, they know almost nothing about this particular child.”

So why not put more taxdollars into daycare, in order to replicate that environment?, some might ask.  That is the nub  The better a daycare centre is, the more it costs.  Thus low income families tend to lose out.  Moreover, daycare work is a thankless and underpaid job.  To make daycarers better able to perform their tasks, they need all the comforts other workers get; rostered time off, lunch and tea breaks, shift work, vacation time.  But this is the Catch 22 situation: the better we make working conditions for the carers, the more we disadvantage the infant!  That is, the more flexi-time we give the carer, the less continuous, long-term attention the baby gets from one carer.

Why not simply give financial help to the one most likely to be committed to the child’s well-being – the mother?  Daycare can never come up to this standard.  “That vital continuous one-to-one attention can rarely be achieved in group care, however excellent the facility may be.  Babies in their first year  need one primary adult each, and while that may be inconvenient, it is not very surprising.  Human beings do not give birth to litters but almost always to single babies.”

Contrary to the alarmists, Children First is a very sensible and practical book.  It may be a threat to the radical feminists and government bureaucrats, but to average Australians, and to parents and children alike, it is a breath of fresh air.

[1369 words]

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