Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Why bother having a child if you are going to dump it off in daycare baby farm?

Children need time with their parents
Children need time with their parents

It's not the sort of thing that a self-declared feminist is supposed to say, but I'm going to say it anyway: why bother having a child if you're going to plonk him or her in full-time daycare from when they're knee-high to a grasshopper?

All right, some people, such as single parents and other low-income families, don't have much of a choice about that. They don't have the luxury of opting out of work, for at least part of the time, to devote themselves to their child's early years.

Yet plenty of parents do have that option open to them. I'm not saying it's easy, or convenient, or without repercussions for future career advancement and earning power.

But let's not forget that it is a choice, one with enormous potential consequences; not only for the psychological and emotional welfare of the individual child, but for the health of society at large.

Much of the blame for such heedlessly enthusiastic baby-farming can be attributed to successive governments, which have pressurised mothers into getting back to work not long after the umbilical cord is cut.

Now we learn that the current coalition Government wants to ensure that 40% of two-year-olds are in daycare by next year. Meanwhile, childcare minister Elizabeth Truss is planning changes to childcare regulations to allow fewer staff to care for more pre-school children.

So the baby-farms will get cheaper, more populated and less well-regulated. It's the new generation that will pay the price.

Let's not pretend that allowing our kids to be raised in packs by bored, under-educated supervisors (a recent report showed that just more than one-in-five daycare staff hold a qualification above A-level) won't have a negative effect on them.

Even the very best childcare, provided by highly trained and well-qualified staff, is no substitute for a devoted parent. Because you know what's missing from it? Love. It's as simple as that.

Love is what gives you the patience to read the same story again and again and again. Love is what makes you take the time to (try to) answer all those endless questions: why the sky is blue, or why a cat's tongue is rough, or why the fire is hot.

Love is also what motivates you to explain why it's wrong to snatch, or fight, or pull the legs off spiders, or laugh at people for being fat. It's important – yet radically undervalued – work, hopefully laying the ground for a lifetime of knowledge and personal morality.

But here's the thing. It only has a chance of succeeding if you're actually there, giving that precious, consistent, one-to-one attention that a young child really needs if she or he is to thrive and flourish.

A 20-year research study from the University of Pennsylvania published last year showed that the more mental stimulation a child gets from parents by the age of four, the more developed their language and cognitive abilities will be in the decades ahead. You only get one go at this and it may mean the difference between a bigger life for your child and a smaller one.

Swedish researcher Jonas Himmelstrand, whose report on childcare was recently presented to MPs by the pressure group Mothers at Home Matter, warned that long hours in nurseries lead to a severe decline in psychological health and educational standards.

He said: "Emulating the Swedish approach, where both the staff-to-child ratio and the number of hours children spend in daycare are both increasing, is not the answer and is actually damaging to your children's future." Mothers at home do, indeed, matter. They do a vital job and their voices should be heard, not least on the injustices of the tax and benefit system, which discriminates against the one-wage family, forcing it to pay proportionately more tax than a two-earner couple on the same household income.

They certainly shouldn't be made to feel guilty for not being 'hard-working', or 'productive', or not part of George Osborne's "aspiration nation".

But neither should we assume, as many people do, that early-years childcare is the woman's natural responsibility. Fathers are just as capable of providing the essential one-to-one love and attention that a young child needs, if only we could get our heads round the idea.

Young children shouldn't be 'minded', they should be actively raised.

They need a mum (or dad) who's willing to give the time and energy to do that.

There, I said it. So shoot me, sisters.

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