Despite reports, there’s nothing wrong with looking after your kids

IT makes me want to tear my hair out when I read reports such as those on this week’s Dublin conference — Scandinavian Childcare: making it happen — because it seems no-one asks: what is childcare?

The care of children? Then why is parental care not childcare? For years we have been barraged with the ideology that it is not good for young children to be in the care of family members. We have been told that the progressive Scandinavians have left us far behind because they don’t mind their kids themselves but put them, instead, in State-funded creches.

People never ask what is wrong with parents raising their own kids. They’re scared they’ll be labelled “right wing” or even worse, “traditional”.

Well I’m neither, folks, and I’ve stayed home full-time, gone out to work full-time and worked part-time at home. And I don’t see what’s wrong with looking after your own kids.

Lots of people like it. The only nationwide media poll on childcare, carried out by this newspaper in 2005, showed a whopping 65% of Irish people considered full-time care by a parent their ideal childcare arrangement.

Fifty-two per cent of families achieved it. Those poor backward Irish families, if only they knew what they were missing in a Scandinavian creche! Except that the two most comprehensive research studies on early childhood, one in the US and one in the UK, found that kids who spend large amounts of time in group care before the age of four in one study, three in the other, are more likely to engage in “anti-social behaviour”.

“It is fairly clear from data from different parts of the world that the less time children spend in group care before three years, the better,” renowned child psychologist, Penelope Leach, commented to The Guardian.

The Scandinavian Childcare conference in Dublin was told that “good quality early childcare” improves children’s literacy and numeracy, for which there is evidence, but also that group care makes kids “more sociable” which is debatable. And, as Leach pointed out, maths and reading skills can be more easily caught up later than emotional skills.

What is missing in group care for very young children, she explained, is being “the cat’s whiskers” for your carer. This is exactly what a contented Mam or Dad or Gran or childminder can provide. It is possible to achieve in group care, but the staffing levels would have to be so high that it would be cheaper to pay parents to stay home. Penelope Leach was spat on by the feminist lobby, which has, unfortunately, always opted to spring women out of their caring roles rather than raise the status of caring.

In Ireland we are ambivalent about this, but in the Scandinavian countries it is an article of faith. I think that relates to their traditionally Lutheran background, which stresses the work ethic and has dispatched the figure of the Mother of God.

It is a political argument there, with left-wing parties wanting state childcare and women in the workforce and Christian Democrats favouring choice, in the form of a home-care allowance. This is available as an alternative to childcare for children under three in Finland and Sweden, but it has just been discontinued for children over two years in Norway.

Denmark, from which country hails the academic who addressed the conference, offers a home care allowance for a maximum of one year at 85% of the cost of the cheapest daycare place. The parents must have registered for a day care place and they must be “pedagogically assessed” to see if the child might not be better off in daycare.

In Denmark you are likely to put your child in childcare even if you are not working outside the home. The Irish Times reported on the Danish childcare system as “the best in the world” in 2005 and carried wonderful quotes from Danish mothers like, “Being a full-time mother by choice doesn’t exist. Why waste your education?”

Why does this remind me of that terrible quotation from the OECD’s Babies and Bosses (2003) that a mother caring for her child at home has the result that “human capital goes to waste.”

The Scandinavian focus on state childcare is serviced by the dogma that the lives of women and men should be as similar as possible. And everyone should live like Scandinavians. I found some great Scandinavian research papers on childcare cautioning that home-care allowances “give incentives to immigrant women to stay out of employment and keep their children out of daycare.”

No chance the Scans could learn something from the immigrants, then? Underneath this ideology is the far more potent force of conservative economics. This is why the OECD’s Babies and Bosses report on Ireland is quoted as gospel in this argument, with no-one asking why an ecomomic union committed to democracy and the market economy should be telling us what to do with our children.

So worried was the OECD that our relatively generous levels of child benefit would make staying home to mind your kids too “attractive” that they suggested taking child benefit off the errant mothers who refused to go out to work.

Barnardos, one of the four organisations behind the Dublin conference with the National Women’s Council, Open and Start Strong, does amazing work with disadvantaged kids all over the country. Preschool is vital to these kids, and while the effect of preschool on well-resourced children is small, universality is vital to maintain the standard for everyone. A second free preschool year, which the four agencies want, seems like a good policy objective.

Preschool and daycare are completely different things, however. Preschool exists because it is good for kids, daycare because parents work. Nothing wrong with that, but don’t confuse the two. Parents should be encouraged to avail of preschool but to swap daycare for a family member or their own care if they wish. Or, indeed, the care of childminders, which the four agencies rightly want regulated.

But they are calling for a €2bn investment every year so that by 2020 we have a “high quality, well-regulated childcare system”. And that is likely to mean predominantly centre-based care, the preferred childcare arrangment of a full 2% of Irish parents in the 2005 Examiner poll.

There are plenty of things about Scandinavia we could import, such as their far lower child poverty rates. But surely there are far wider reasons for that than the State childcare system and new, Irish ways of tackling the problem?

Like asking why should the children of women who don’t work outside the home be economically disadvantaged? Who decided that they should have no payment and no pensions? Why not use the expert labour force of parents already in the home to provide much-needed after-school care for other kids? Who decided getting parennts out to work and their kids into childcare is the way to go? And where, oh where, are they to find the jobs?

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