With over $1.5 billion a year spent on child care by Australian Governments, child care is big business. And with over 600,000 children involved, it affects a lot of people. There is no denying that child care is a growth industry. But with the growth there have been questions raised. How does parental absence affect the child? With growing numbers of children being raised by strangers, what effects will this have on society in the near future? It is important that these questions and concerns are addressed before more growth takes place.
Perhaps the most important question in the child care debate (and the one that is least asked) is this: “How does it affect the child?” Most discussions about child care revolve around issues like employment or a woman’s right to choose. Seldom is the child given any consideration. As family psychologist Steve Biddulph has said, “Childcare was not invented for children’s sakes, but for adult needs”. Or as Anne Manne put it, “In this issue, those affected most deeply, children, are wordless, hence cannot be participants in that conversation”.
What then are the effects long term day care can have on young children? Like so many other social hot potatoes, there is no unanimity on the answer to this question. While numerous international studies have shown that maternal deprivation at an early age can effect the mother-child bonding process, and can impair a child’s emotional, social and psychological development, other studies discount such findings. And while the work of people like Bowlby, Fraiberg, Karen, Belsky, Haskins and Ainsworth has shown a connection between extended periods of maternal absence, including lengthy stays in day care for infants, and later developmental problems, other researchers have tried to portray child care as not only not harmful, but in many cases beneficial to the child.
Given the uncertainty of it all, is it too much to suggest 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? If a doctor said 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 situation is 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?
For the time being, I concur with educational psychologist Burton White, director of the Harvard Preschool Project, who has written extensively on the subject of nonparental care. This is how he summarises his experience: “After more than 20 years research on how children develop well, I would not think of putting a child of my own into any substitute care program on a full-time basis, especially a center-based program.”
In discussions about child care much is made of the issue of quality. The ideal situation for babies and toddlers is the continuous one-to-one attention of a caregiver. However, this can rarely be obtained in group care. For one thing, the ratio of children to staff is often 15 to 1, or worse. Also, there is a very high turnover rate of staff at day care centres. As Biddulph put it, “Many childcare youngsters will spend 12,000 hours in care before they reach school, with dozens of different carers – and that’s if they stay at one creche!”
Obviously there are good daycare centres and 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? One mother expressed this well when she said recently:
“While I – and most of my friends – were saying our minds were ‘too good’ to stay at home and raise our children, none of us ever asked the question, ‘Then what sort of minds should be raising our children – minds that were not very good?’ My carefully worded advertisements for childcare literally came back to haunt me. . . . I wanted someone who would encourage my children’s creativity, take them on interesting outings, answer all their little questions, and rock them to sleep. I wanted someone who would be a ‘part of the family.’ Slowly, painfully, after really thinking about what I wanted for my children and rewriting advertisement after advertisement, I came to the stunning realization that the person I was looking for was right under my nose. I had been desperately trying to hire me.”
As child expert Penelope Leach has said: “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.”
Even if the above argument is accepted, the response of some is still: “Why not put more tax dollars into day care, to improve quality and service, in order to replicate that home environment?” There are several problems with this. First, the better a daycare centre is, the more it costs. Thus low income families cannot avail themselves of the service. Second, daycare work is a thankless and underpaid job. To enable daycarers to better perform their tasks, they need all the benefits 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? Says Leach, “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.” Or as Anne Manne put it: “Children need most not trained, expert, professional care, but the passionate partiality of parental love. That love is not reproducible, just as to be a mother is not reproducible. Caring is.”
The impact of the modern child care experiment on society also needs to be assessed. One Stanford University psychologist has remarked that with the mass exodus of children into daycare, “we are altering the cultural fabric” of society. Indeed, anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted the radical shifts that must take place to break the mother-child bond:
“The mother’s nurturing tie to her child is apparently so deeply rooted in the actual biological conditions of conception and gestation, birth and suckling, that only fairly complicated social arrangements can break it down entirely. . . . Women may be said to be mothers unless they are taught to deny their child-bearing qualities. Society must distort their sense of themselves, pervert their inherent growth-patterns, perpetuate a series of learning-outrages upon them, before they will cease to want to provide, at least for a few years, for the child they have already nourished for nine months within the safe circle of their own bodies.”
Such a massive social transformation cannot proceed without major repercussions. Some groups will applaud such changes, seeing them as a sign of progress. Others, however, may view such changes as retrograde and regressive. As social analyst Peter Drucker once put it, “We are busily unmaking one of the proudest social achievements in the nineteenth century, which was to take married women out of the work force so they could devote themselves to family and children.”