Non-family Childcare in Early Childhood – bane or blessing?

In this issue of TM, I want to write about the thornily controversial question of childcare in early childhood – an issue which in the past month has recently received very dramatic press and media coverage in the UK, with the publication of the findings of Britain’s most detailed research project ever into the effects on child development of different kinds of early-years care. This discussion will have a number of goals in mind – not the least of which will be to help TM readers to negotiate a path through the minefield that is ‘empirical research’ – for the kind of research findings which are commonly reported in this (and any other) field can be extremely misleading, and really do require a level of critical discernment to make sense of them, and not be misled, or end up being just plain confused!The front page of the Daily Mail newspaper said it all on Monday 3rd October – ‘CHILDREN DO BEST IF MOTHER IS THERE: Experts’ seven-year study of hundreds of families fuels debate over childcare’. The report began, ‘Young children develop better if they are looked after by their mothers at home, a major study has concluded. They are more socially and emotionally advanced than youngsters cared for by nannies, childminders or grandparents. Babies and toddlers fared even worse when they were given group nursery care…’. And so it continued. The research was also reported with great prominence in all of the British broadsheet newspapers, and in the tabloids too.Now being a Steiner teacher myself and therefore strongly subscribing to the central finding to emerge from this research, it would of course be all too easy uncritically to embrace these results as simply ‘proving’ decisively what we in the Steiner education movement, attachment parenters etc. have known to be self-evidently true all along. Indeed, I immediately took the opportunity to write off to Nursery World magazine, who thankfully published my letter in the 20th October issue under the heading ‘A better education’. My submitted letter (which they edited slightly) read thus:Dear Editor,Great media prominence is being given to the Government’s early-childhood policy – ironically named ‘SureStart’ – with Penelope Leach’s and Oxford University’s recent research finding that, all other factors being equal, young children will inevitably develop most healthily when raised in a stable, unhurried way by their own parent(s) in a loving family environment (‘Home care found best for babies’). Critics of the expediently fashionable policy of driving young mothers back into the workforce at any cost have been arguing for years that there is a direct causal relationship between the Government’s multiply misguided early education policies, and the behavioural and social malaise that is rapidly becoming the norm in today’s mechanistically utilitarian schooling system.Steiner, Montessori and small-school educational approaches produce excellent social and behavioural outcomes, together with strong foundations for formal learning – and with little if any of the manifold drawbacks that mainstream educations’s premature, over-formalised and cognitively one-sided education inevitably produces. And they do so in large part because they are faithful to the common-sense findings of this most recent and thoroughly convincing research project. Those with a deep commitment to the well-being of the nation’s young children are waiting with baited breath to see whether the Government takes any notice of it.Yours sincerely,Dr Richard HouseBut – and it’s a rather big ‘but’ – it isn’t quite that simple… First, there is also a great deal of countervailing research (for example, emanating from the Surestart camp and from the USA) which claims that the research ‘proves’ the very opposite! – i.e. that early childcare actually enhances child development, and that young children therefore benefit from it developmentally.Now begins the careful deconstruction!… First, those of us who believe strongly in attachment-informed parenting won’t be in the least surprised by these latest research findings. We could also talk about what I would argue is the Mother’s – and Father’s – unique and quite unsubstitutable love and care for their own children – by which I mean that, at an overridingly important spiritual level, there is indeed nothing that can adequately substitute for the parents’ love. But this is not to say that there can’t be ‘good-enough’ love – and there can equally be little doubt that many children are very resilient, and do still manage to thrive in conditions where the depth or quality of love they receive is ‘good enough’ for them, even if they don’t receive the degree and consistency of parental love which they would no doubt choose if they had the capacity to make such an informed choice! And this in turn throws some light on how it can be that research sometimes finds that childcare does indeed help children’s development. For it is a sad reality of modern life that the degree of deprivation that some children experience in some homes means that they might indeed be better off, and better served developmentally, by being in some kind of quasi-institutional childcare setting.What this all-too-brief discussion goes to show is that it is quite impossible to generalise in fields such as this, as the superficial sound-bite media (and sometimes the researchers themselves too!) try to do. Rather, this kind of research must always be carefully disaggregated, before any kinds of indicative conclusions can be drawn from it. For example: What is the approach to measuring ‘successful development’ that the research is assuming – and is it appropriate? (see below). What is the nature of the population of families that is being researched into and measured? What is the quality of childcare that they are using in the research – e.g. is it valid to lump together ‘nursery care’ into one explanatory variable, without looking closely at the way in which the quality of care varies between similarly classified early-years settings? – etc. etc. For example, it has been found in some research that young children in all-day care settings sometimes receive on average as little as 8 minutes quality one-to-one attention from their adult carers – so isn’t it little wonder, if that is the nature of the childcare, that the child will be better off at home? Yet on the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact the children in very emotionally deprived homes might well receive a higher quality of care and love in a childcare setting than they would being stuck at home in front of a television all day… – so you can see how complex this question really is when you begin to look into it.As mentioned above, there is a central question in all this about what constitutes healthy ‘development’ – for what research of this kind almost invariably ignores is the notion that development is not always by any means appropriate. In Steiner education, for example, we strongly believe that if a child is led or even forced into certain kinds of ‘development’ at what is a developmentally inappropriate time, then it can actually do lasting damage in the longer term – and even for the rest of the child’s life. Thus, Rudolf Steiner himself said that‘If… the teacher continues to overload [the child’s] mind, he will induce certain symptoms of anxiety. And if… he still continues to cram the child with knowledge in the usual way, disturbances in the child’s growing forces will manifest themselves. For this reason the teacher should have no hard and fast didactic system…. Illnesses that appear in later life are often only the result of educational errors made in the very earliest years of childhood. This is why… education… must study the human being as a whole from birth until death.’This should be sobering news indeed for all those early-years practitioners and policy-makers who quite uncritically assume that simply because one can observe measurable signs of ‘development’ in a child, that it is necessarily a good thing! – for what an engagement with Steiner child development theory, and at least some of these research findings, illustrates is that premature child development can sometimes be harmful rather than helpful to young children – and especially so in the early years. Back in July, when it was announced that all children up to the age of 4 were to be given free books by the British Government, I had the following letter printed in the Guardian newspaper, which tells its own story:Friday July 29, 2005‘The news that all children up to age four are to receive free government-sponsored books should be greeted with nothing like the unqualified enthusiasm shown in your report. It is, first, a logical error to assume that because children might benefit emotionally from reading books with parents, that it is reading per se that is the active causal factor in any observed emotional development.  Moreover, contrary to the assertion that early reading leads to later school flourishing, experience from both the Steiner education movement and from continental Europe strongly suggests the opposite – ie that being thrust into the world of literacy before the age of six or seven actually leads to a longer-term educational malaise and a severely compromised joy for learning. Perhaps we should be giving away free copies of ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ to all our government education ministers.Dr Richard House, Norwich’What is even more scary is that such views are very much the unquestioned norm in many ‘expert’ (and certainly policy-making) circles – which makes it all the more crucial that magazines such as this one furnish concerned parents with the arguments with which they can reassure both themselves, and their families and friends, that healthy development is a subtle unfolding journey, and not an ego-driven a race! (The Hare and the Tortoise again). So when you come across media reports that proclaim the benefits of this or that programme or approach to early childcare, look first at what they are counting as being ‘development’, and whether there is any indication that they possess any understanding that measurable ‘development’ isn’t always necessarily healthy development – because if you can find no such indication, I would personally always treat such research findings with very considerable caution, if not downright scepticism.I wanted to close with a few words about what I’ll call (by no means originally!) ‘the spiritual task of the homemaker’. In a number of my previous TM articles, I have touched upon various aspects of early-life experience that I see as being critical – not least, a sense of unhurriedness, the importance of rhythm and free play in healthy child development, and the protection of the vulnerable senses of the young child. These I would all see as being important aspects of the spiritual task of the homemaker. Moreover, homemaking has become greatly devalued in our hyperactive ‘modern’ culture, with governments determined to drive mothers back into the workforce as soon as possible in order to meet their targets on child poverty reduction – no matter what the developmental cost to a generation of children of driving through such policies.From a superficial feminist perspective (and in many respects I regard myself as some kind of feminist, by the way!), it is all too easy to paint the view that ‘homemaking is a crucial aspect of family life, and which woman often do best’, as some kind of reactionary attitude that diminishes the role of the woman and the mother in modern society. In reality, I passionately believe that quite the opposite is the case; for as soon as one embraces a deep spiritual understanding of the art of homemaking, then the importance of women and mothers (and it will be fathers sometimes, of course) actually becomes elevated to a quite new level of importance. Consider, for example, the following quotations from the book The Spiritual Task of the Homemaker:‘Where homemakers are working out of spiritual understanding, that is where the new society will arise… The homemaker… stands within situations from out of which a new society will develop. “Homemaker” in future will receive a totally new meaning… for the homemaker’s whole existence stands at the centre of one of the greatest changes to take place in human history… [For example], where do we find a basis for human relationships in our current culture? This clearly is in the household… If we speak of culture we can no longer refer to a large community. That is why the home has become the bearer of culture.’These resounding words really do speak for themselves, and don’t require much further comment from me… – except to say, first, that to the extent that the foregoing has meaning and prescience, then we shouldn’t find it at all surprising to find that young children who participate in, and are witnesses to, such a homemaking experience thrive developmentally – as discovered in the most recent research quoted above. But alas, the kind of crass empirical, ‘positivistic’ research that dominates modern life seems quite unable to incorporate the kinds of ‘spiritual variables’ (if you’ll excuse the term!) that might well help researchers to make more sense of their findings! Moreover, if indeed the healthy creation of human culture can now only really take place in the home, then might not this account in large part for the malaise which our young people are currently suffering so painfully in the modern world? Lots to reflect upon here…Now the kind of person likely to be reading this article is precisely the mother or father who is going to provide the greatest quality of nurturance to their children, so in one sense I am almost certainly ‘preaching to the converted’ in this article. But it certainly does no harm to have one’s worldview and convictions confirmed from time to time!…; and more generally, perhaps all parents of small children often find themselves engaged in conversations or debates about the relative merits of different kinds of early-years care. I hope that this article will help parents to take the level of any such discussions to a new level of sophistication and nuance, rather than simply take up the crassly oversimplified, polarised positions that media reports display in this crucial field.Note:I have in my computer (assembled into one WORD file) a large number of media reports on childcare research, which I would be happy to send to anyone who was interested in pursuing this field of interest – my email address is below. I can also supply several references to ‘spiritual homemaking’ – here, I have quoted from the book The Spiritual Tasks of the Homemaker, by Manfred Schmidt-Brabant, Temple Lodge, London, 1996, ISBN 0-904693-84-8.Recently appointed to a Senior Lectureship in Psychotherapy and Counselling in Roehampton University’s Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, regular Mother magazine contributor Richard House is an NHS counsellor, a Steiner Waldorf early years teacher and an academic writer/editor living in Norwich, UK. He also edits the acclaimed ‘Early Years’ book series for Hawthorn Press. Address for correspondence: richardahouse@hotmail.com

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