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Day Care Blues

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Over 30 years ago social analyst Peter Drucker wrote this about the rise and rise of Western daycare, “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.”

If he was rightly shocked back then by this development, his head would be reeling now. Today we have an entire generation of young people who are being raised by strangers, and not their own parents. While radical feminists and social engineers would applaud such changes, no one concerned about the wellbeing of children should.

Sometimes a parent has no other choice in this regard, but far too often the wants of adults are trumping the needs of children in this debate. While adults at times may have a genuine need for the long-term care of their children elsewhere than home, this is seldom beneficial to the kids themselves.

Based on decades of careful research on these issues, the simple truth is this: the younger a child is, and the more time he or she spends in formal daycare, separated from mother and father, the more likely that negative outcomes can occur.

Indeed, plenty of studies have demonstrated the harmful results that such extended periods of formal care can have on young children. Consider one very recent Australian study which has once again confirmed all this. This is how one news item begins the story:

Children who spend more than 21 hours a week in long daycare are at greater risk of performing below average in math, literacy and overall academic achievement, a new study finds.

The Australian National University work, based on four waves of longitudinal data over six years, found “significant” negative academic outcomes for preschoolers who attend on average more than four hours a day at childcare centres.

Once they crossed the 21-hour-a-week threshold, children were found to have more trouble adjusting to school later on and had poorer marks on a key development questionnaire rating strengths and difficulties.

The controversial study will likely reignite debate about the impact of long daycare. The analysis was based on about 3500 children aged four to five in 2007-08 who were not attending full-time school. About 37 per cent attended some form of long daycare, with about 14 per cent attending for more than 20 hours.

And this simply repeats what previous studies have shown. For example, Ernest Foyer, former U.S. commissioner of education, and president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has said that children in day care suffer in terms of language skills development.

A recent American study of 4000 children found that mothers who return to work soon after giving birth may harm their child’s school performance. The study showed that children of mums who work full-time struggled academically compared with those whose mums stayed at home.

Educational psychologist Burton White, director of the Harvard Preschool Project, 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.”

The reason for all these negative outcomes is not hard to come by. Babies need the love and attention of their mothers. Child development experts indicate that children do not engage in peer play until they are about two years old. The late psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg said that babies need mother most of the time until age three, and afterwards, can tolerate a half day’s absence.

As Connie Marshner sums up, “The quality of love and care that a child receives in the first three to five years of life is the main factor in whether that child will be able to think, to learn, to love, to care, to cooperate with other people – in short, whether that child will merely exist or will thrive and flourish and add to human society”.

Studies in bonding and attachment theory have shown that a child’s emotional and mental wellbeing are inexorably tied up with continuous, sustained, stable physical and emotional contact between mother and child. Taking the child away from its mother during this critical period can result in a number of harmful results.

As one expert writes: “Children deprived of parental care in early childhood are likely to be withdrawn, disruptive, insecure, or even intellectually stunted. New research [even suggests] that the depression resulting from separation anxiety in early childhood can cause a permanent impairment of the immune system making these children prone to physical illness through their lives.”

Or as family expert Steve Biddulph said, “It now appears that mother-baby interaction, in the first year especially, is the very foundation of human emotions and intelligence. In the most essential terms, love grows the brain. The capacities for what make us most human – empathy, co-operation, intimacy, the fine timing and sensitivity that makes a human being charismatic, loving, and self-assured – are passed from mother to baby, especially if that mother is herself possessed of these qualities, and supported and cared for, so that she can bring herself to enjoy and focus on the task.”

As Penelope Leach has written in her important book, Children First: “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.”

As I already said, for some parents, especially single parents, formal daycare may be the only option. The point is not to condemn such parents, but to condemn – and seek for a remedy – a system that forces parents into that situation in the first place.

Much more child-friendly social policy is needed to relieve such pressures on parents. For example, real choice should be available to all parents here. Governments should not dictate to parents where and how they seek to raise their children.

A system of child care subsidy could be established in which all parents receive benefits which they can choose to use as they wish. They could redeem it for care outside the home, or redeem it for cash if they choose to care for their own children at home.

But something must be done to slow down this widespread unnatural and unhelpful separation of young children from their own biological parents.

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