Two-year-old "Janie" takes the little, pink- knitted sweater her grandmother gave her from the small cubicle at the day-care centre. She holds it close and walks towards the outer door. It is closed. She stares at the door. It is only mid-afternoon. Janie doesn't express herself well with words yet, but her actions say she wants to go home. No one notices.
Fourteen-month-old "Tommy", who has been in full time day care since he was six months old, approaches every adult who enters the room muttering "Mama," regardless of gender. When the wall phone rings, he toddles over to it, looks up and, with his eyes wide, repeatedly calls out, "Mama?"
According to a recent article, (Parents finally getting real choice in child care, Winnipeg Free Press, May 3), it appears many people are delighted with the promise of "transfer payments by the Conservatives to the provinces so they can be more flexible in the programs they can offer." The Family Choices program will create 6,500 new child care spaces over the next five years and is hailed as a "real" choice.
So I ask: Where is the voice for children? Where is the choice for children?
Statistics Canada reports that the number of children under the age of five in some child-care arrangement has grown more than 25 per cent between 1995 and 2003. Proponents of universal day care argue that the social structure has changed. Mobility in terms of work has resulted in the loss of family support systems. Economic pressures often force both parents into the work force while many struggle as single parents. For others, pursuing careers is often the impetus to place their children in day care. While these arguments may have some validity, they also have one thing in common -- they are all based on accommodating parents' needs. No one seems to be asking the very important question: "Is this really in the best interest of the child?"
Rather than providing support for stay-at-home parents, government has essentially decreed that day care is the best answer. And it may be for some families. But establishing these centres as part of the social fabric not only encourages, but promotes, this alternative. Parental anxiety and guilt may be eased by the feeling that larger day care facilities would be better regulated, offer greater stability and better quality early childhood education. If we look at it strictly from the perspective of the child, however, there are several factors to consider such as age, stability, consistency and research.
Firstly, there is a tendency to categorize all pre-school children into one group without making any distinction as to the important developmental differences within this classification. Part-time day care may be beneficial for a four-year-old who is ready for social interaction and early education, but according to many well-established studies by John Bowlby and others, attachment is a prerequisite and begins in infancy with a consistent and stable caregiver, usually the mother.
According to the late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society, the infant must develop a greater sense of trust over mistrust, which requires a positive, reliable experience with a consistent caregiver. This will eventually be extended to other adults.
And in The Hurried Child, Dr. David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, also emphasizes the importance of infancy because it is the period during which infants "form their most critical attachments and social orientations." It is imperative that, "infant needs should not become subordinate to parental needs."
What kind of consistency and stability can be ensured, even in the best of day cares? Staff, no matter how high the quality, will undoubtedly change, at any time, with undetermined frequency, as their personal lives dictate. It is, after all, a job, not a personal, emotionally impelled commitment to any particular child. The importance of infancy is not learning letters and math, but developing attachment and trust with another human being. As Penelope Leach, a world-renowned psychologist states, "however excellent a day care might be...it's better if children are cared for by their mothers."
If attachment has occurred properly, separation issues will emerge as early as ten months. One must consider the length of time young children may be apart from a parent. When hours turn into long days, week after week, month after month, children may feel a sense of abandonment and bonds of attachment weaken. These bonds are the tethers from which parents can hold on to their kids until they are old enough to make good decisions for themselves.
While many parents may be unaware of these basic psychological/neurological principles, others tend to change their perceptions to accommodate their needs. For example, Elkind notes that when societal changes such as divorce, assorted family structures and working families became the norm, the image of childhood changed from a "growing plant" in need of nurturing, to that of a competent "Superkid."
"We even go so far," he adds, "as to rationalize these beliefs as actually beneficial for children!" He suggests that, "full time substitute care for children under three is rarely advisable."
We are turning the clock backwards. Attachment theory in the 1950s and 1960s led to children no longer being removed from even disadvantaged homes. Now we have created an entire "child-care industry" of paid caregivers to substitute for the parents through the most critical and formative years. When did children become a commodity "to fuel the economy?"
We may be well-meaning and well-intentioned but an adult's "reasons" or "necessities" are meaningless to a developing brain. There are critical windows of development to which reason does not apply. Children need what they need when they need it. No amount of technological progress can change it. The only advance we can make is to recognize it, understand it, and provide it. It may well go a long way towards prevention of many of our present social and mental health problems for future generations.
In the 21st century parents have choices. The first is the responsible decision if, or when, to have a child. The second is a plan for how to care for it. That is how the "Janies" and the "Tommys" will have a voice and a choice.
Parents are the best child care workers. We should not be replacing them, but supporting them through tax breaks, education and services. Government policies should begin with a move towards changing attitudes about the value and status of the parenting role and consider that the present direction towards institutionalizing young children is a move backwards.
Libby Simon is a Winnipeg writer.