News & Media

Daycare: It ain't what it used to be (and that's a good thing)

13 Feb 14

Every Monday morning my three-and-a-half-year old son stomps around moping, crying and complaining, 


Nom nom...

"I don't want to go to daycare!", as though he is being sent to solitary confinement where he will be deprived of Lego, train sets and all drawing implements and instead be forced to sit still in a corner and eat broccoli and sardines all day long.

Every Monday afternoon when I pick him up from daycare he greets me with an astonished smile and the revelation that "I like daycare now!"
And so it has been since I went back to work when he was just ten months old.
Everyone has an opinion about the merits of daycare. They range from the inclusive:"All children should attend daycare to learn socialisation skills" to the judgemental: "Why bother having kids at all if you're just going to stuff them into an institution and not actually raise them yourself?"

Terrifying social termites...

As far as daycare-bashing goes, is the clear winner with their assertion that "Institutionalized group child care defies eons of evolution. Caring for our young by unrelated adults in a group setting such as day-care puts our species on a par with lower animals such as termites and other social insects." Well. I guess at least we're not comparable to the unsociable insects. That would be terrible.
Quite frankly, I think daycare gets a bad wrap. Most of the negativity which gets bandied about seems to be based on outmoded perceptions of what your average early childhood education centre offers.
I will admit, putting my son in daycare so young initially caused me significant problems. The most immediately obvious ones were:
1. The standard of the food. It's hot. It's nutritious. It's tasty. And worst of all, it led my son to believe he had the right to enjoy hot, nutritious and tasty lunches at home. Instead, he got sandwiches. Not a happy toddler.

Clearly a neglected daycare child  2. The standard of the care. The carers devote all their time to looking after the kids: playing with them, cuddling them, reading them books, teaching them craft. At home? By contrast my son was emotionally distraught at his neglectful mother who attempted to spend copious amounts of time engaged in frivolous, un-child-related activities such as vacuuming, making Vegemite sandwiches, going to the toilet or (heaven forbid) chatting with other Mums over a coffee (NO! The SHOCK of it!).  
Nevertheless, a recent Australian study of over 600 families by Macquarie and Charles Sturt Universities found that children placed in childcare under the age of one actually suffer no discernible bad effects six years down the track. In fact, "the more toddlers were at the centre, the happier and more comfortable they were, but they also had more conflicts with carers." (1)

Artist's impression of Son #1's behaviour for his Aunty.

I'm no psychologist, but I'd say the conflict phenomenon is fairly easy to explain. Case in point: my eldest son spends copious amounts of time with me and engages in a significant number of conflicts with me. He spends just a couple of hours a week, on average, with his Aunty (my sister) and rarely, if ever, engages her in conflict. In fact, she revels in telling me what an upstanding example of good behaviour he is whenever he's at her house (hurrumph...).

In the past, we would have had plenty to complain about. 150 years ago daycare (or creche as it was initially known) was virtually an unknown concept. Starting in France in the 1840s as a charitable concern, la creche was "a house for the reception of poor people's infants while their mothers are at work." (2) The conditions were correspondingly fairly bleak and epidemics were rife. In 1849 twenty-two out of thirty-one babies in one single creche died from cholera. I'll never complain about my boys catching a regular cold or bout of simple gastro from the other kids at daycare again.

A mother with good moral character...

Working conditions for us Mums weren't so grand back then either (you know, in the "good old days"...). The creche was open between 5.30am and 8.30pm to "correspond to the typical working hours". Bring on the 40 hour working week! Fees were reasonable at around 20 cents a day, but in order to be accepted into the creche, the baby's mother had to be married and "of good moral character". Er-hem...

Of course, there has always been an alternative if you don't want your kids in daycare: make sure the father of your children stays alive, well and in an open, lucrative financial partnership with you. Or nowadays, you can claim a single parent government benefit. Then you can stay home and look after them yourself.

A word on single parent pensions: I've come across two fascinating and quite contrasting theories about the issue of single parent pensions vs. daycare (you didn't even know it was an issue, did you? Shows how much we take for granted, doesn't it?). Before single parent pensions and daycare became established societal expectations, there was a fair bit of heated debate about them.

The anti-pensioners claimed a pension would "hinder women's efforts to achieve economic self-sufficiency through employment" (presumably by encouraging them to mope around the house all day looking after children and sponging off the government). 

(3) The pro-benefit, anti-daycare movement asserted that daycare added to "poor women's difficulties by encouraging them to take arduous, low-paid jobs while their children suffered from inadequate attention and care." 

(4) (They figured sponging off the government and running around after the kids at home was much better than getting paid peanuts and running around after rich people while your kids died of cholera in a creche).

Future utopian society where the work of parents is valued (possibly located in an alternate dimension).

I'm pleased to announce that I have come up with a modern day solution to both of these problems: allow parents to work 2.5 days per week each and have society pay them the average (average, mind you, not minimum: let's not be stingy) Australian wage to stay home and look after the kids on the other 2.5 days. Problem solved.
Until that happens, as I said to my screaming eleven-month-old over two years ago, "Honey, I know you think you don't want to go to daycare but you'll be fine once you get there, and I truly believe that I'm a better Mum when I'm at home because I get a break, at work, a couple of days a week."

Over the years the carers at my son's daycare have cuddled him when he's sick and waiting for me to pick him up, they've held him when he was tired or miserable, they've guided him through toilet training with little more than a nonchalant shrug and a "Don't worry, we do this every day, just pack a couple more pairs of pants than usual, he'll be fine." They've sung with him, read to him, rocked him to sleep and shared the joy with us in each new developmental milestone. Daycare is a safe place for my boys, with caring, qualified professionals looking after him. And pooh to you who say otherwise.

(2) Medicalization and Moralization: The Creches of Nineteenth-Century Paris, by Ann F. La Berge, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
(4) A Mother's Job: A History of Day Care 1890-1960, by Elizabeth Rose (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Rebecca Stephens is a Melbourne writer, blogger and Mum to two gorgeous, inquisitive and non-stop little boys. Visit her blog Seeing the Lighter Side of Parenting and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.