CPS Research Fellow Kathy Gyngell writes on the move away from parenting to 'childcare' carried out by unfamiliar professionals.
Today’s political imperative to ‘meet the childcare challenge’ is not about childcare at all. What the politicians are really talking about is child management on a mass scale to ‘free’ (another euphemism) mothers to work.
The commonsense and kindness associated with Dr Spock’s 1946 book of baby and childcare - his encouragement of maternal affection, his message every baby is an individual – has passed into history it seems.
Then childcare was a matter for the family not for the state. Today, as a matter of political policy, it is cloaked in doublespeak.
Doublespeak - language used to deliberately disguise, distort, or reverse the meaning of words - was brilliantly laid bare by George Orwell in his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’. It is the fallback of politicians to make the truth more palatable or who would even deny the real nature of the truth.
This is exactly the case with ‘childcare’. Its original mother care meaning has been lost. Now it refers almost exclusively to state subsidised, third party and largely institutional arrangements for the minding of children.
A warning light came on when the Blair government brightly insisted “Every Child Matters” as they directed thousands of tiny tots into daycare, hoping that high-turnover, unfamiliar carers left in charge of numerous children would do a better job than mothers.
The closure of state nursery schools that refused to turn themselves into ‘wrap around’ crèches was the next sign childcare was not about infants at all; that getting mothers to work, not infant needs, was really driving the policy bandwagon.
Then in the process of ramping up childcare subsidies, regulation and (Ofsted) inspection, the government's childcare cheerleaders managed to eliminate all but formal and impersonal childcare, halving the number of home child minders – even though they have historically proved the most satisfactory mother substitutes after gran and dad.
There is method in the politicians’ madness. Yesterday’s reports of evermore stay-at-home mothers returning to work show just how ‘successful’ the government’s mass management of infants and children has been.
The result of this cocktail of discriminatory tax policies, child benefit caps and child care subsidies is two-thirds of married British mothers, with dependent children under the age of three , finding they have little financial choice but to work; some 5.3 million of them.
The question is whether this work place revolution could have happened without an official sanctioning of childcare as an unqualified good; possibly better in many respects than mother care and definitely an early education plus.
I doubt it could, for no study or childcare expert has ever demonstrated this; no child psychologist has actively advocated the advantages of institutional care over mothering for child development.
Nor has any study shown that the mother is not the optimal care giver and educator. To the contrary, the most recent studies on the interpersonal neurobiology of attachment and emotional development of infants confirm she is. These studies show that the secure attachment of a child to its mother over the first 24 months is fundamental and critical to the most basic aspects of brain development and language acquisition. It is what commonsense would tell you.
As for daycare, once the research small print is read, there is little evidence of its advantage other than for severely neglected or at risk children – and even there the long terms gains are tenuous. Unsurprisingly research does show there are negative behavioural downsides to long hours of early daycare.
This has not stopped many mothers clinging to the belief that childcare socilaises their children, even their one year olds.
Such is the power of the childcare myth. The truth is otherwise. Their need for mum matters not one jot under compulsory wrap around care policy. If they see their mums and dads in waking hours they will be lucky.
Blithely impervious to such brutal truths our party leaders are ever eager to demonstrate their childcare credentials for the TV cameras. Always in the brightest childcare centres; they are ready to play their own TV game show, “How to get more kids into childcare”, ever earlier and forever longer hours.
Nick Clegg’s latest bid was to expand ‘nursery education’ to 40% of all two year olds. David Cameron has topped this with generous childcare tax breaks for parents of under 5 tots (state registered care only, of course.)
Ed Milliband went the whole eight yards promising a legal obligation on all schools to provide ‘wrap around’, 8am-6pm childcare, plus a whopping 25 hours of free childcare for all three to four year olds.
This is what ‘family friendly' policy means to them – separating children from their parents, particularly their mothers.
Theirs is a new orthodoxy reminiscent of Victorian times when children were to be seen but not heard - a harshness Dr. Spock rightly challenged. But now we have reverted. Today’s childcare ensures children are out of the way all together - neither heard nor seen.
Perhaps it is no surprise that our contemporary guru, Gina Ford, instructs mothers to leave their babies crying; a reflection perhaps of their parents limited economic choices.
But she is wrong and Spock was right. Right too was the warning of his contemporary, the psychologist, John Bowlby, that maternal separation impacted on a child’s development.
The essential infant experience was, he said, a, “warm, intimate and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both can find satisfaction and enjoyment”.
Today's arduous 7am to 7pm childcare regime makes that all but impossible.
Yet politicians from Yvette Cooper to Michael Gove remain unconcerned about the implications for mother and child.
What they are providing is called childcare so it has to be all right.