Sept 6th 2008
[Since I wrote this I have had a grandchild. From the age of two he has been in childcare for a few hours on a few days a week. He loves it. Three cheers for the staff at his child care centre. It’s the kind of place that lets 3 year olds hold live snakes around their shoulders when the man with native animals comes to visit.]
The aim of my recent raw-nerve comment on child-care was not to distress parents—it was merely to speak up for all the babies who are in full-time care under the age of 12 months, let alone at three weeks, for up to 60 hours a week.
In most debates about child care, including this one, it’s all about ‘the choices people have to make’. It’s about the adults and their needs and their situations.
No one mentions the babies—no one at all. How babies themselves are feeling, developing, reacting or suffering is never on the agenda. Everyone’s too frightened to mention it. It’s the big fat elephant in the room that no one has the bravery to acknowledge, let alone confront.
I’m aware that some parents and carers have felt attacked by my comments. I’m honestly sorry for that, but I won’t take back a single word, even though it wasn’t I who said the words ‘child abuse’ in the first place.
I was simply quoting the owner of a brilliant child care facility in Queensland, who said to me last year: ’Mem, when we look back at the quality of child-care for babies at this time in our history, with the terrible ratios of carers-to-children we currently have, people are going ask us how we allowed such child abuse to happen.’
I knew she was right. As an advocate for excellence in early childhood policies and as a literacy academic and consultant, I’ve found myself over the years at conferences and conventions around the world, listening to the real experts: the pediatricians, social workers, educators, speech pathologists and child psychologists speaking about the detrimental effects of full-time child-care for the very young, especially in the first months of life.
So although I’m not the primary source of this information I have heard it myself from the mouths of eminent people who have enlightened me and frightened me.
I’ve heard them speak about worldwide research over the last fifty years on parent-child bonding; and worldwide research in the last ten years on brain development, both of which point to huge and worrisome issues for babies in fulltime care.
These babies develop differently and some of their learning (‘neural’) pathways don’t develop well at all, due to insufficient touch in their four first months of life. A baby who is touched, and held, and stroked, thrives.
The problem stems from an insufficient number of carers per baby, and to the fact that babies can’t even bond with their carers since the young over-worked carers themselves, who are doing their utmost, move on so often. They are undervalued by low pay. And they feel helpless and sad about not being able to do the best for the children in their care.
So I decided, somewhat crazily as it turns out, to speak up for the babies since they cannot speak up for themselves. Someone, somewhere, had to defend them since they are defenceless.
It was at this point that I was misunderstood.
At no time did I say a word against child-care in general, let alone well-resourced, good child care; or part-time care for any child; or care by family members, or friends.
In the end, astoundingly, 98% of the huge number of messages I’ve received from parents, professional organizations and child-care workers themselves have been overwhelmingly positive, full of heartfelt thanks and praise for my ‘guts’, my ‘balls’, my ‘courage’, and for ‘saying it like it is’.
I honestly thought I was going out on a limb. Instead I’m relieved and thrilled to find myself in a forest of agreement.
One of the loveliest of these affirmations was from a Swedish pre-school teacher who told me that children in Sweden are not encouraged into long-day child-care until they can toddle or walk, so that if they want to, they can literally ‘walk away’ from any situation that distresses them.
Among the anti-brigade, there are a few groups who are so angry they’re planning a mass public destruction of my books in two states. I don’t mind at all, but is it fair to punish the children? Is that child ‘care’?
I understand their reaction. It’s quite normal for us, when we’re threatened by an inconvenient truth, to react with rage, then denial, and then ridicule of the person who relayed the news. Eventually acceptance follows.
I have absolutely no choice but to take it all on the chin. I was the foolhardy messenger.
But please don’t shoot the messenger. For the sake of this country’s babies—their future and ours—could we all now focus on the message instead?
I’ll be making no further comment on this issue.
Talk to the real experts next time and then see what happens.