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Childcare can never be a substitute for a full-time parent's love and attention

A new study claims that children do better at nursery than at home with parents. Nonsense, says Fionola Meredith

Published 25/11/2016

It’s an unfashionable view to suggest youngsters shouldn’t automatically go to daycare. File image posed by models
It’s an unfashionable view to suggest youngsters shouldn’t automatically go to daycare. File image posed by models

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: what's the point of having a child if you're going to plonk her or him in full-time childcare shortly after the umbilical cord is cut? This is more than an unfashionable view, I know. In some circles, it's practically unsayable. Making parents - especially working mothers - feel guilty is a social crime.

But I happen to believe that very young children do better with one-to-one care from someone who loves them, someone who is deeply invested in their well-being and development, right from the word go.

And it doesn't have to be the mother who offers that care. Dads can do it, as can grandparents. The important thing is that the child gets to explore the world with a loving, emotionally-connected adult at their side, listening to them, guiding them, answering all their strange and wonderful questions. Singing songs together, reading stories together. Teaching them what mango tastes like, why leaves are green, why it's wrong to pull the legs off spiders.

But it seems that I've had it wrong all this time. According to a widely-reported study by the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics, children are better off being sent to nursery, rather than staying at home with mum or dad.

Young children whose mothers are not working have lower capabilities in terms of talking, social skills, movement and everyday skills, the study says.

Laurence Roope of Oxford University, a co-writer of the report, said it was clear that time spent in day care had a "strong positive effect" on children. "It should give parents some reassurance that nurseries are not going to harm their children, and are likely to be beneficial," he said.

I've always felt sorry for the tiny children you see being dropped off at nursery at 8am by parents in flashy cars. That's where they'll spend the day, being cared for by largely under-educated supervisors - just over one in five daycare staff hold a qualification above A-level - before being collected again at teatime. Sometimes you see the kids being brought out for a walk, a poignant little gaggle in high-visibility vests that often look too big for them.

Now we are supposed to accept that this existence is markedly more beneficial for children's development than being looked after by their own parent. That's more than counter-intuitive, it's downright bizarre.

Look, I'm aware that few people have the luxury of being able to step away from work and devote themselves entirely to their child's early years. For every family, it's a balancing act, and for some, full-time parenting is simply not a viable option.

But the plain fact is that plenty of better-off parents could, with a bit of financial re-jiggling, do most of the rearing of their young offspring themselves, if they wanted.

It might not be easy, it might involve sacrifices of various kinds, and it might have an impact on future earnings and career development. But it is possible.

Many parents choose not to do that, which is of course their right and prerogative. Perhaps they do not want to give up the double income, or the big house, or the nice cars, or the holidays abroad. Fair enough - it's up to them. That is their choice.

What struck me about the Oxford research is that it was an economic report. According to Laurence Roope, economists are starting to study the well-being of pre-school children because they are interested in understanding "human capital … these are the things which feed through to the labour market and the generation of income."

Human capital - now there's a phrase to send a shiver through the soul. If we regard our children as the human capital of the future - as nothing more than economically valuable bodies in the workforce, an investment on behalf of the State - then we divest them of the very qualities which make them human. Happiness and sociability and intelligence are not cold measures of future productivity, they are what makes life worth living.

I have no doubt it's healthy for children to spend time together, acquiring the "everyday skills" this study speaks of, such as getting dressed, or learning to share. Play groups and nursery schools - as distinct from full-time daycare - provide this for most children in the pre-school year.

But no amount of economists brandishing data about "human capital" will convince me that there's any real substitute for that patient, consistent, one-to-one attention that a youngster really needs if he or she is to thrive and flourish as a fully-rounded adult.

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