A creche is a business, but childcare is more than a commercial transaction

If our starting point is that parents who use childcare are neglectful, we’re setting a low bar for the standards we expect

"This is a business. It's not a babysitting . . . It's not a one-to-one." There's nothing in that ugly reprimand – delivered to a staff member by crèche owner Anne Davy in the course of Wednesday night's RTÉ Investigates: Crèches, Behind Closed Doors – that parents don't already know, at least on an intellectual level.

Yes, crèches are a business, and if there was any doubt about that in the minds of parents, the first instalment of the €1,000 monthly fees is likely to clear it up.

But nobody hands their child over to be cared for by a business. Paying someone else to care for your children may be a transaction, but implicit in that transaction is the understanding that you are not just paying for a roof over your children’s heads, and food in their bellies. You’re not just paying for a safe place for your children to count down the hours while you’re at work.

You’re paying for stimulation, safety, socialisation, fun.

Above all, you’re paying for kindness.

Or so you assume.

Of all the questions a parent might ask a prospective carer – “What will you feed her?”; “How do you keep them entertained?” – there’s one that probably never gets asked. “Will you be kind?” Kindness is the most basic, entry-level requirement, so fundamental to the relationship between child and carer that even asking about it would feel like a betrayal.

That’s what made the programme so shattering to watch. For all the issues exposed at the Hyde & Seek chain of crèches run by Davy – the fire safety regulations, the watered-down milk, the 12 cent instant chicken noodles served up with 0.8 grams of salt in every pack, the staff members left alone with 18 babies – it was the small, routine cruelties that shocked most. The shaming; the manhandling of toddlers; the shoving of their tear-soaked faces into mattresses; the crying child left in a high chair for 40 minutes; the other child left bawling alone in a room for some transgression; the toxic streams of invective shouted at stunned, terrified children, far too small to understand what they were hearing. It all made for difficult, enraging viewing, carrying haunting echoes of the past.

It’s not that there weren’t moments of compassion, particularly on the part of staff, but the culture of the place fell far short of kind.

Running a crèche may be a business, but we don’t expect our children to be treated like unwelcome by-products of a commercial transaction.

Questions now will be asked about Tusla’s systems of inspections and enforcements; whether those systems go far enough; what should be done to sanction repeat offenders; what exactly it takes for state funding to be withdrawn – and why ‘repeat offenders’ are even countenanced in a role as important as childcare provider. But, beyond that, there is also a need for self-examination about legacy attitudes to childcare in this country.

Childcare is now a fact of life in Ireland, a necessity without which the economy would grind to a halt. But – and this is crucial – that's no bad thing. Historically, we have tended to talk about paid childcare as though it were a necessary evil, and an impediment to the idyll envisaged by article 41.2 of the Constitution, in which women contribute to the "common good" by staying at home, and if they are forced "by economic necessity to engage in labour", the inevitable consequence is "the neglect of their duties".

If our constitutional starting point is that parents who outsource the day-to-day care of their children are neglectful, we’re setting a low bar for the standards we expect from childcare facilities.

But the truth is that when it is delivered properly, in a well-structured and adequately resourced environment that promotes a culture of kindness, paid childcare is a positive in the lives of both children and their parents. There is now ample Irish and international evidence that children in crèches fare every bit as well as those cared for at home. An ESRI report published in 2016 found that five-year-olds looked after in high-quality settings in crèches for the first three years of life are, overall, as emotionally and socially healthy as children looked after at home. When the home environment can’t meet all their needs, they sometimes do better in crèches.

The key words, of course, are ‘high quality’. High-quality care isn’t about state-of-the-art facilities, like the ones at some of Davy’s crèches. It isn’t about impressive daily rosters of activities (it certainly wasn’t at Hyde & Seek, where staff were filmed being told to make them up.) It isn’t even only about meeting guidelines on staff vetting and ratios and fire safety regulations, as important as those measures are. And, after well over a decade of relying on paid childcare for my young children, I’ve come to realise that qualifications may be a good indication of someone’s commitment to working with children, but they matter a lot less than an individual’s ability to make your child feel safe and loved and happy.

The question many anguished parents will now be asking is, how do you know? How can you tell if your child really is safe and loved and happy, when they lack the language to tell you?

Our fears about our children being observed by strangers means most crèches are hidden behind high walls and tinted windows. The price we pay for all of that security is that we have to rely on our instincts, and Tusla’s system of inspections and enforcement to answer those questions for us.

But if there’s any comfort to be drawn from all of this, it’s that research suggests parents are usually right to trust their instincts. The results of those studies would look very different if the vast majority of childcare was not of good quality. Most people who work in childcare are compassionate professionals who chose their career because they like working with children.

The RTÉ Investigates programme made for distressing, difficult viewing, but it shouldn’t become another stick with which to beat the growing number of families who rely on paid childcare, whether that’s because of economic necessity or personal choice. The truth is that all parents, whatever their employment, economic or personal circumstances, whether they work inside the home or outside it or do a bit of both, are entitled to the best for their children.

And all children deserve to be cared for in a safe, compassionate environment.

Kindness should never be too much to ask.