by Karem Roitman
I am a terrible mother. I am keeping my child from socializing with his peers. I am thwarting his language development. Undermining his physical skills… You see I am a stay at home mother and I have chosen to keep my children with me during the day. With political candidates now offering more and more hours of ‘free’ childcare, people can shake their heads in disbelief that I am not jumping at the bit to take this offer. Family, friends, and strangers constantly ask when my children will attend nursery. The assumed benefits are repeated like a well-known rhyme: child socialization, maturity and independence, school preparation. On the other hand, a hushed, worried, silence falls when I mention keeping them with me, implying all sorts of deficits and deprivation.
It is controversial to argue that children should be with their parents and not in nursery. Most parents, to start with, have no choice. Staying home is expensive, parents have to work and nursery is the only option. A two-income household, moreover, is favoured and rewarded by the tax system. I have nothing but respect and admiration for parents who are sacrificing daily to lovingly provide for their children. Indeed, I am not here to bash any parent. But I do want to question candidates and the logic and assumptions behind the offers they are making. I want to demand policies that bolster family development and respect individual’s needs for nurturing, rather than put up with sub-par offerings that limit our options as individuals and families.
The options currently being made available diminish and desecrate parenting. As a society we see parenting as something we do in passing, between *real* and *important* jobs. So we often hear mums apologetically whisper ‘I am just a mum’, and, until recently, the role of the father was so undermined that we have been willing to let children see their fathers just minutes a day for a perfunctory ‘good night kiss’, rather than railing against children being robbed of a male role model, mothers robbed of a partner, and men being robbed of the part of their manhood that is manifested in parenting. Parenting is a valuable and valid full time job. After all, our society, its peace or its violence, its taste for beauty, its depravity or joy, is directly derived from how we parent. We need to invest in allowing parents to do their job. Critics will argue that society needs adults to be economically productive agents, something stay at home parents are not. This is a myopic view of what is productive, as parenting produces the moral code of society, its relational strength: in other words, the raw material for human capital.
The harsh reality is that nurseries are set up to support economic production, rather than human development. Despite this, in the best-case scenario they are stimulating, safe places, where children find a second home, flourish, and are loved and cherished. Perhaps cynically, however, I worry that a government that promises almost full time ‘free’ childcare will not be spending enough per child to obtain such ideal places. I also worry that the money needed to fund this childcare will be taken from programmes that support parents and families in other ways.
Even the best nurseries cannot provide the level of physical and emotional contact active parents can give. Rather than accept this failing and seek to address it, however, we are now telling parents that they are wrong for holding their children: that babies should be put down and learn to ‘self settle’, as they must in a nursery; that children need to be away from their mothers (ignore human evolution and what it tell us!), they need to be in nursery, in order to prepare for school. Thus, rather than embracing the wisdom of parenting and use it to model supporting institutions, which is what nurseries should be, we are undermining parenting, devaluing care, and telling parents they should do as these institutions are forced to.
Nursery is not an educational necessity. Pushing our children younger and younger into academic learning is backfiring, and seems to have more to do with feeding politicians’ egos than with an understanding or interest on child development. Young children need security, love and play to prepare for academic learning in later years. And parents need to feel that their work as parents is valued. We need to revalue parenting in society so that parents have the support needed and feel challenged to fulfil their duty to its highest standard. And if politicians want nurseries to be pseudo-parents, we must raise our expectations of these institutions and accept what we are asking when we leave our children there.
24th April 2015