Let’s not pretend we are shocked by stressed staff treating children badly

Column: Quality childcare has taken second place to ensuring women can be ‘productive’ members of society

Links Childcare creche in Malahide, Co Dublin, one of those featured in this week’s RTÉ Prime Time programme.  Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

Links Childcare creche in Malahide, Co Dublin, one of those featured in this week’s RTÉ Prime Time programme. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins


‘Decisions concerning childcare may not in fact be decisions at all but choices between a range of possibly non-preferred options.”

That’s from one of the research papers from Families, Children and Child Care (FCCC) a longitudinal study of 1,201 British children from birth to school age, and it applies just as much to Irish families.

For the past 20 years, our society has dictated that keeping the engine of consumerist capitalism humming is the only game in town, and all social policy was engineered to fit that aim.

Having women in the paid workforce became a key objective. So let’s not pretend shock and horror because stressed staff in a childcare franchise sometimes treat children badly. The aim was never quality childcare – it was to ensure that women could become “productive” members of society.

Having people in hock up to their eyeballs to the banks for their homes is also part of our economic model, as is promoting endemic dissatisfaction with whatever we currently possess, in favour of what we might purchase tomorrow.

So dual-earner families become the norm, and only the very well off or the very frugal can aspire to being able to afford having one parent in the home.

That leaves a gap, which again, very handily, the market can fill, so we see shiny, corporate, privatised childcare springing up, helped along by government grants.

Yet families vote with their feet. When asked, very few want institutionalised group care, although that is often all they can afford.

Most parents want to rear their children themselves as much as possible, and replicate the home experience where it is not possible. Therefore, they rely on relatives, or other women recommended through word of mouth.

Yet what is being pushed is creche-based care, the so-called Scandinavian model, although in fact, there is not one, but several Scandinavian systems of childcare.

Danish childcare
In 2005, Kate Holmquist visited Copenhagen to see the Danish childcare system at first hand. She found that women no longer believed that they could do as good a job of rearing their children as the daycare facility could. A typical comment, by Mette Kjaergaard, a human resources manager: “If a mother stays at home, where is her life? What about her education? The mother would be lonely at home and the child wouldn’t meet new friends, since all children are in day care.”

Her child was 18 months old. New friends? What 1½-year-old needs new friends? They need solid one-to-one attachment with a devoted adult.

Childcare guru
Penelope Leach, the childcare guru who was one of the lead researchers in the UK study mentioned earlier, describes the essential role that caregiving plays in a baby’s development.

When a baby cries, his or her body floods with cortisol, the stress hormone. If the cries are responded to sensitively, the body is flooded with endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones. Eventually, if the experience is repeated often enough, the child learns to self-soothe. If it is not, the child becomes a stressed and anxious teenager and adult.

Many caregivers are sensitive and responsive. Being a 20-year-old with limited educational experience, who is paid a euro more an hour to look after three babies than she would get in McDonalds for slinging hamburgers, hardly increases the chances.

We pity parents of triplets, coping with the enormous stress of having three tiny dependent people looking to you to be fed, changed and loved all at the same time. But we write that ratio of adult carer to babies into childcare regulations, and expect everything to be hunky dory?

It is important to remember that there are terrific people providing third-party childcare.

In 1997, Sir William Utting, writing about British children in care, said that the manager is key. If the manager has a clear focus on genuine care for children, coupled with good in-house training and supervision, you are well on the way to quality care.

Informal inspection
Instead, we have focused on the buildings. John Byrne, a lecturer in social care practice in the Waterford Institute of Technology, told me he carried out his own informal inspection of his daughter’s creche in his local village.

He would have been happy to have had his children minded in a garden shed by the woman who ran the place, but the creche was closed down because she did not have child-height toilets, and two cars could not pass in the driveway.

It is that kind of nonsense we need to eliminate. Compassion is the key to good childcare, the ability to enter sensitively into a child’s world.

Parents do that best, and yet every policy we have seems geared towards the so-called dual-earner, dual-carer model, which often in practice means a stressed dual-earner, and stressed-carer model.

There are some positive aspects of some of the Scandinavian models, like homecare allowances for minding your own children, such as they have in Finland.

Many parents would love it, but sadly for children, it apparently does not fit with the relentless demands of a market-driven economy.

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