We must beware of overreacting on the childcare issue

Opinion: Outsourcing the care of children can be a fraught and guilt-ridden affair

“High quality childcare is certainly not about graduation ceremonies, cute uniforms or impressive buildings . . . It is  about low child-carer ratios in a safe and stimulating, child-centred environment. It is also about warmth and affection.” Photograph:  Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

“High quality childcare is certainly not about graduation ceremonies, cute uniforms or impressive buildings . . . It is about low child-carer ratios in a safe and stimulating, child-centred environment. It is also about warmth and affection.” Photograph: Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images

Mon, May 27, 2013, 11:16

Paid childcare is now a fact of life for many Irish families. Economic necessity – and the gradual erosion of the male breadwinner, female homemaker, ever available grandparents model of the family – mean that many of us have no choice but to engage professional help.

Even so, outsourcing the care of your children to someone else is invariably a fraught and guilt-ridden process. In the early days of employing a new childminder, I regularly find myself “forgetting” phones and wallets, and having to pop back home unannounced. Other parents go even further: one couple I know have installed a hidden camera in the living room to watch their infant son when they’re away, and to keep an eye on their nanny.

Over time, parents tend to develop an emotional bond with the people we pay to care for our children, mostly because if we didn’t handing them over would be unbearable. That’s what will make this week’s RTÉ Prime Time programme such difficult viewing. The fact that the mistreatment uncovered doesn’t appear to be at the Leas Cross end of the scale is unlikely to provide the parents involved with much solace.

According to those who have seen it, the programme – which was filmed by undercover reporters at the Giraffe creche in Belarmine, Stepaside; Links in Abington, Malahide, and Little Harvard in Rathnew, Co Wicklow – will show children being strapped “unnecessarily” into high chairs for long periods and being handled “abruptly” during their nap and rest times.

Even the notion of your very young child being treated with an absence of kindness and affection is, for a parent, pretty horrifying. At the same time, we have to be wary of overreacting.

Paid childcare, in itself, is no bad thing. Without it, many families would not be able to make ends meet; many women would be denied the opportunity to work outside the home.

There is a growing body of academic research to show that children in high-quality care benefit too, even, according to one recent study, up to 30 years later. The Government is sufficiently convinced of this to have invested €175 million in providing a year’s free place for every four-year-old child in the country. But it is those two little words “high quality” which matter most.

High quality childcare is certainly not about graduation ceremonies, cute uniforms or impressive buildings. It is not even just about the qualifications of staff, hygiene practices or the amount of space, though these things matter. Rather, it is about low child-carer ratios in a safe and stimulating, child-centred environment. It is also about warmth and affection.

We are unduly fearful of extreme risks like abduction or abuse, at the expense of less newsworthy, but more realistic ones – that our children might be bored or understimulated; that they might be shouted or sworn at.

Paranoia about children being observed by strangers means that most creches now have high walls or obscured windows. Some require parents to wait outside or in a lobby for their children to be brought to them. The price we pay for the sense of security this gives us is that parents rarely get to watch their children and carers unobserved.

We have to rely on the HSE’s system of inspections to do that for us – and almost certainly it will have questions to answer once its review of the three creches involved is concluded. One of these questions will be about the frequency of unannounced visits to childcare facilities.

Whatever transpires, we should not allow the fallout from this programme to become another stick with which to beat families in which both parents work.

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