As extended families shrink, communities dwindle and the need to work increases, the need for childcare grows. But at what cost?
Where are those ‘smug stay-at-home mums’ that people keep talking about? They must exist, since you often see them referred to in the childcare/full-time mum debate. I live in the leafy north shore (Sydney) suburb of Lindfield, where you’d expect to find a few of them, French-manicured and on their way to a tennis match. Maybe it’s because I’m too busy looking after my own toddlers that I haven’t made many inroads, but it would be nice to know a few local parents and their babies who are at home during the 9-5.
I wasn’t raised to be a housewife. Like most women of generation X, I was taught to strive for a fulfilling career. I became a journalist and planned, like every other woman I knew, to take at most a year’s maternity leave. But when I became pregnant a concerned relative asked if I really only wanted to take off a year, and offered some literature on childcare. I’m still at home with my toddlers and hope to be there for them, as much as I feel is necessary, when they enter preschool and beyond. It’s because I’ve been at home with my babies that I can see how much it would hurt them to be left for several hours at a time on a regular basis. Once, in need of a break, I left my girls with my parents for five hours — twice as long as they were used to — and when I returned, one of my daughters, aged eight months, ignored me for some time. She finally smiled at me and then would not let me go.
Pioneering child psychiatrist John Bowlby noted similar responses of feigned indifference by young children who had been separated from their parents for extended periods. Bowlby devoted his life to studying how children are affected by separation. His main body of work, the three-volume Attachment and Loss , was published over an 11-year period with the final instalment released in 1980. He took a scientific, quantifiable approach, noting the types of responses and their frequency. He observed that children will initially show signs of distress when their parents leave, but eventually give up hope, greeting their parents with ‘blank responses’ when reunited. They have detached.
As far back as the 1950s Bowlby found that failure to meet youngsters’ needs to be with their primary carer could result in ‘grave personality disturbances — severe anxiety conditions and psychopathic personality’. This was one of the observations he made in the notes on his famous video, A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital , which showed in graphic detail the torment an infant goes through when left to cry without comfort from its mother. Bowlby also found depression was a common response to separation. An austere approach to childcare was no longer in vogue; it was the beginning of what is commonly referred to today as attachment parenting.
In the film, Laura, aged two years and five months, is observed from 9am-9pm during her eight-day incarceration. Laura reacts the way Bowlby has found is typical of young children and babies when faced with the loss of their mother; by initially protesting for her return. ‘As the film shows, she (Laura) expresses her longing for her mother clearly, directly and very frequently,’ Bowlby writes. ‘This phase of protest, however, never continues indefinitely: sooner or later, as despair grips the child, a new response gathers momentum — one of denying the need for mother.’
Many working parents will tell you that after the initial settling-in period, their babies no longer cry when taken to childcare. But viewed in Bowlby terms, it is the children who no longer protest at separation who do not have good attachment to their parents. Or, in the words of another eminent psychologist from the same era, Erik Erikson, rather than ‘basic trust’, these babies have learned to view the world from the premise of ‘basic mistrust’. This message is reinforced at the childcare centre, where staff only stay for an average of 18 months because of the emotional stress, long hours, low pay and increasing casualisation of the workforce. To compound matters, a child rarely has the same carer for the entire day in a long daycare situation, with changing and rotating shifts a feature of the modern workplace.
Erikson says; ‘In order to learn to be independent the child must have learned that he can depend.’ In other words, an infant must first learn it can form attachments, before any talk of going out into the world, gaining independence and an education becomes meaningful. And this process can take up to four years of age, according to experts. The Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications, published in recent years under the editors J. Cassidy and P.R. Shaver, states it is only by their third birthday that children are ‘less distressed by brief separations’. And by four years old they are ‘much less dependent on physical proximity and contact with their attachment figures … and are increasingly comfortable spending appreciable periods of time in the company of nonfamilial peers and adults’. So while preschools, as opposed to long day care centres, only take children from three years old, many parents find their child is not ready until the age of four.
In Baby on Board , published in 2003, Australian babies’ physician Howard Chilton tells of studies that show how monkeys become distressed when separated from their mothers for a few days at the equivalent age of a toddler. When reunited, the babies become extremely clingy. If their mother looks like she might leave, they throw a tantrum and become angry and agitated. Months later, they are still anxious, will not explore like the other monkeys, seem depressed and are timid about changes in their cages. In the human kingdom, Chilton says infants who in toddlerhood are shown to be insecurely attached, meaning those who are very anxious about brief separations from their mothers, do not get over their insecurities easily. Long-term studies of such infants show their poor attachment plays an important part in the ease with which they fit into school, and later, their ability to form personal relationships.
Of course it is a rare parent who would put their babies in care if they thought it was bad for them. The pain many parents feel at leaving their infants in childcare is dulled by the belief by most that they like it. But Under Five in Britain , a study of children in child-minding and day nurseries in Oxfordshire, reveals most children do not like to be in childcare. It finds that a startling two-thirds are passive and unresponsive during their stay, with one-quarter being actively clinically distressed or disturbed — having deeply disturbed language development or severe behavioural difficulties. Yet when the mothers of those studied were asked whether they thought their children were happy there, every one of them responded in the affirmative.
The survey concluded that no-one can replicate the mothering experience: ‘There is no reason to believe minding someone else’s children on a regular basis is the same sort of activity as looking after children in one’s own home. Every bit of research that has been undertaken on this subject testifies to the contrary.’
This does not take away from the fact that many mothers at home today are just not coping. The dwindling away of extended families and any sizeable community network outside the workplace means the stay-at-home parent carries a much greater load and has less emotional support. And babies and young children are very sensitive to what their parents are feeling. So if the stay-at-home parent isn’t coping, or really does not want to be homebound, a break from the children might be in the best interests of all concerned (other options, of course, could include investing in a nanny part-time to help out, moving to a cheaper area and putting off buying that house until preschool).
One woman with twins found an early return to ‘work’ was exactly what she needed, because her babies were exhausting her. But if she found it hard with her two, one can only try to imagine how harried childcare workers are, with a legally required ratio of only one staffer to every five infants under two years of age. The ideal of one-on-one interactions is nigh impossible to achieve in an endless round of nappy changes, drinks and meal times. Overseas literature usually suggests that at most, staffers should have up to three babies each in their charge.
People will argue that childcare is not bad for our children, so long as it is of good quality. But crucial bonding issues aside, it is very hard to find good quality childcare, not only because of the rapid turnover of staff and inadequate staff/child ratios, but also because of the lack of qualified workers. Centres keep opening to try to meet demand but not enough people are seeking a career in the industry. While a centre with, say, 30-40 children must have an early childhood teacher, with a minimum three-year degree from a recognised institution, or equivalent, exceptions can be made — for example, if an early childhood student has completed two years of their degree. The other staff members do not need any qualifications. This means that centres may be operating without any fully qualified staff. It is a commonly held view of many insiders that childcare is in crisis.
Governments are outsourcing the cost of childcare by encouraging private centres through subsidies, and ‘cost-effective care’ often translates into cutting down on quality. In the first half of 2004 alone, four centres in NSW had been prosecuted for 56 breaches of the regulations, including exceeding the staff:child ratio, having equipment posing a possible drowning hazard and an outside fence which could be scaled. In more extreme cases, one centre was fined in 2002 for leaving a 30-month-old trapped inside after lock-up. In separate incidents in 1997, a child suffered second degree sunburn because of a lack of adequate shade, while another lost an eye in an accident because of a safety breach.
The environment they operate in means childcare centres are structured to service working parents and this can take precedence over any aims to educate. An increasing number of centres operate as a ‘one-stop shop’, where parents can drop off their kids for the day, or for occasional, before-and-after-school-hours and vacation care. In this setting, where continuity and structure are not iron cast, there is one certainty: a child who is placed in a childcare centre for the average opening hours of 8am-6pm will see little of the outside world. Because of the blowout in insurance costs, excursions have become all but a thing of the past.
At the end of the day, after we’ve picked up our babies from childcare, the situation is in reverse and we are being accused of over-parenting. We obsess over our children, feeling compelled to buy them the latest gadgets and spending weekends shuttling them from one activity to another. Parents are concerned with increasing their babies’ learning potential with Mozart CDs and trying to ensure they are not lagging in reaching various stages of development. But in striving to provide the best for our children, the best that money can buy, we may be depriving them of one of the things they need the most: more time with their parents.
A perceived advantage of centre-based care is that it provides necessary stimulation and a proper learning environment for babies and toddlers. Yet it is the very relationship between mother and child, rather than a deliberate process of teaching or entertaining, that helps the child develop, according to the author of The Continuum Concept , Jean Liedloff. Liedloff spent two and a half years living in the Amazon jungle with the Yequana people. She observed babies being carried mostly in a sling, continuously, until they started to crawl. During the day, the babies watched their mothers work, felt the breeze as they walked around, shared their bath, and at night, their bed. Liedloff said it was this inclusion of babies in every aspect of life, rather than having them lying alone in a pram, on the bed or floor, that provided satisfactory stimulation. Liedloff said she rarely heard a baby cry, as their needs were immediately met with a simple grunt, and the ‘terrible twos’ was a phenomenon the Yequana did not experience.
One of the results of modern parenting is that children’s play is ‘all but dead’, in America at least, according to a recent issue of Psychology Today . ‘With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life,’ the journal said. ‘That not only makes them risk averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety.’
Angela Rossmanith says it is parental guilt that leads many to express-entertain/educate. She made the case for unstructured play in an article in Sydney’s Child last year, as she was doing research for her sequel to When Will the Children Play? Finding Time for Childhood . ‘Think about all those various expressions of parental guilt:…If I have to work long hours in the office the least I can do is to provide plenty of entertainment for the kids,’ she writes.
‘Most of us live busy, sometimes even frenzied lives, particularly when we’re meeting the demands of both raising children and earning a living. Children are caught up in this whirlwind, forced to live lives organised from dawn to dusk.’ Consequently, children don’t know what to do with their free time. Rossmanith says more than one daycare director has told her that children tend to have less initiative than in the past as a result.
So we should forget about rushing our children, over-scheduling them and leaving it all up to the professionals in day-care facilities. Many parents are the first to admit they lack confidence and turn to others for advice. Yet they are the ones who spend the most time with their children and are likely to know them better than anyone else instinctively. A game of peek-a-boo, some tickling and laughter, or a trip to the café for a latte and a chat may be all our infants require of us, and more. Through our time and love, we are teaching them that they can trust, and are sharing special moments that will stay with them, in their unconscious, for the rest of their lives. In the minds of Bowlby and others, it is the best we can hope to do as parents.
What daycare is best?
Dr Burton L. White, a researcher and parent-educator, offered the following rating of types of substitute care in descending order of preference:
A warm, intelligent and experienced person caring for the child in the child’s own home;
A warm, intelligent and experienced person caring for the child in that person’s own home;
Family day-care, with the same kind of person caring for no more than two children under 18 months or no more than three from 18 to 36 months in her own home;
Non-profit centre-based care: carefully selected, where there are no more than two children under 18 months per staff member, or no more than three children from 18 to 36 months per staff member, and the total number of children should preferably be less than 10;
Profit-oriented centre-based care: a very carefully selected centre that meets all the above requirements.
Excerpted from Early Child Care – Infants and Nations at Risk by Dr Peter S. Cook
Child Care is Big Business
Today, more than 70% of Australian childcare centres are owned by commercial interests. One of those owners is Eddie Groves, a 38-year-old Canadian citizen and one of Australia’s richest people. He made his fortune in daycare. His ABC Learning Centres recently merged with its biggest corporate competitor, giving him a particularly large slice of the childcare pie.
Groves controls about 20% of Australia’s 4,400 childcare centres. His publicly traded company is valued at around $1.2 billion. From a single childcare centre in 1988, Groves and his ABC Learning Centres now control almost 900 centres in Australia and New Zealand.
Since 2001 ABC stock value has increased more than tenfold. It is interesting to note that childcare worker salaries in Australia have been notoriously low while corporate profits have grown. Despite a national accreditation process that centres must pass every 2 1/2 years to qualify for government childcare benefits, academics say regulations are lax and quality is elusive.
In the absence of definitive research, academics say anecdotal evidence shows that corporate centres in Australia are more likely to stick to the bare minimum when it comes to staff qualifications and child-staff ratios, while community-based centres run by parents tend to use any profits to improve quality.
In an investigation of corporate childcare last fall, Melbourne’s Sunday Age newspaper reported that several independent centres bought by corporate chains saw their food budgets slashed and cleaning staff let go. Childcare workers had to assume cleaning jobs during the hours they were supposed to be looking after the children.
Recommended Reading List
- 7 Myths of Working Mothers — Why Children and (Most) Careers just Don’t Mix by Suzanne Venker
- Day Care Deception: what the child care establishment isn’t telling us by Brian C. Robertson
- The Day Care Decision — What’s best for you and your child by William Dreskin and Wendy Dreskin
- Death Star to Open Day Care Centre
- Published by the ONION, volume 29, issue 18, www.theonion.com
- Early Child Care — Infants and Nations at Risk by Dr Peter S. Cook
- The Hidden Costs of Childcare by Patricia Morgan © 1992, published by UK’s Family and Youth Concern (Family Education Trust)
- Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behaviour Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes by Mary Eberstadt
- Home by Choice by Brenda Hunter, Ph. D
- The Problem With Day Care and ‘Why Encouraging Day Care is Unwise’ by Karl Zinsmeister, in The American Enterprise, May/June 1998, www.taemag.com/issues/issueID.128/toc.asp
- Who Needs Parents? Effects of Child Care and Early Education on Children in Britain and the USA by Patricia Morgan
- Who Will Rock The Cradle? Edited by Phyllis Schlafly
With thanks to Day Cares Don’t Care, daycaresdontcare.org
How can I get time out?
Mothers sometimes ask: ‘Then can we never leave our small children?’ I do not believe that anyone has ever suggested they should not. It is an excellent plan to accustom babies and small children to being cared for, now and then, by someone else — father, for instance, or Granny, or some other relation or neighbour; in this way mother can have some freedom too, for an afternoon’s shopping in peace, visits to the doctor or dentist, the cinema or tea with friends.
Leaving small children whilst you go out to work needs much more care. If your own mother is living nearby or a dependable neighbour can be daily guardian, it may work out all right. But it needs regularity, and it must be the same woman who cares for him.
It is the same with nannies. Nannies are valuable people, provided they are good ones and provided they stay. It is the chopping and changing of people in charge of a young child that upsets him.
If a mother hands over her baby completely to a nanny (as my father was) she should realise that in her child’s eyes, Nanny will be the real mother figure, not Mummy. This may be no bad thing, always provided that the care is continuous, but for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother.
Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 13
Monsebraaten, L., Canadian mines `big-box’ daycare, The Toronto Star, Feb. 5, 2005