Small comfort

As debate continues about whether child care hurts children, Karen Kissane looks through the latest research and finds a mix of good and bad news. Part two of our special report: Who is looking after our children?
ARE CHILD care centres the gulags of the ’90s, dumping grounds where vulnerable children are abandoned day after day to survive as best they might? Or are they warm, creative places where children are kept safe and happy while their parents work?
Twenty years after mothers of young children began returning to the workforce in numbers, the child-care debate is alive and angry. Age cartoonist Michael Leunig inflamed it further in July with his “Thoughts of a baby lying in a child-care centre”, in which a small, weeping bundle defended its mother against accusations of being a “cruel, ignorant, selfish bitch”, and blamed
itself for failing to win her love.

Many people feel passionately that it must be a cruelty for small children to endure long separations from the person they love most in the world. Many parents who have used child care feel grieved and defensive that an experience they have found so positive for their children could be so maligned.

Who is right? As with most complex questions, the answer is “it depends”.

Studies suggest that each case depends on a combination of factors including the age at which the child began care, the number of hours per week, the quality of the child-care centre and how well-loved and secure the child felt at home. The child’s own temperament is important, too; children are not merely passive recipients of influences.

Yet the voices of children are strikingly absent from the huge body of research; no one seems to have asked older kids in child care whether or not they like it, and whether they would still rather be at home with mum or dad.

These are questions that may remain unanswered. The Australian researcher Gay Ochiltree says she wanted to do such a study, in which children would be both observed and talked to, but was refused funding on the basis that it would be unethical to question small children.

In general, Australian and international studies consistently find that the toddler and child who is well looked after at home and at day care thrives. If it’s a good centre or family day care home and the child’s relationship with the parents is sound, there is no evidence that pre-school care will cause harm either at the time or later in life.

Professor Margot Prior, the director of psychology at the Royal Children’s Hospital, says: “Quality day care has no damaging effects providing the child has a good relationship with the parents. Of course, they can experience grief, but if their attachment (to the parents) is secure, they cope with the separation. The security of that attachment does not depend on the hours spent together. If grief does occur, it should be temporary.”
Prior says it is normal for a child to cry and feel lost and uncertain at first in a new environment. Skilled caregivers will be good at distracting them into activities; gradually they feel safe and begin to enjoy themselves, and they realise that they are not abandoned when they find that their mother always comes back for them. “If a child continues to grieve over weeks or months, there’s an issue there that’s got to be dealt with,” she says. “It may or may not be to do with day care.” The educational psychologist Maurice Balson, author of the book Becoming Better Parents, agrees. “If the child’s got a good relationship with the parents at home, child care doesn’t bother me. Long term, it doesn’t matter what the child is experiencing; what matters is how the parents relate to it and what it makes of those experiences, how it interprets them . . .”
But the reassurance is not a blanket one. In her book Effects of Child Care on Young Children, Ochiltree reviews international studies done over the past 40 years. Some American research indicates that babies who have 20 or more hours of care in the first year of life tend, as older children, to be less close to their mothers and more aggressive than their peers (see box). Some United States studies found that disadvantaged children were better off in child care than at home with struggling families; Nordic studies, however, indicate that even in high- quality centres where most do well, children with emotional difficulties tend not to get the extra help they need.

Other findings are even more contradictory. There are indications that child care might make children more socially skilled, independent and intellectually able, but this seems to depend largely on whether the care was of high quality. IT IS the findings about quality that help explain why parents’ views about child care can vary so dramatically. Clearly, the quality gap can be dramatic, particularly in countries where child care is poorly regulated. (Australia has an accreditation process.) Ochiltree’s book quotes a national study of 64 centres in the US in 1979 that found big differences: “Small groups, especially those supervised by lead caregivers with preparation relevant to young children, are marked by activity and harmony.

Caregivers are warm and stimulating. Children are actively engaged in learning and get along with others . . .

“Larger groups, especially those supervised by caregivers without education or training specifically oriented toward young children, present a contrasting picture. Caregivers monitoring the activities of many children at once, without active intervention. In such an environment, some children `get lost’. Apathy and conflict are somewhat more frequent . . .” Recent New Zealand research into day care for the under-twos has made the alarming discovery that many parents did not know how to pick a quality centre. Some idealised arrangements that their babies and toddlers found miserable.

“Parents know more about how to choose a car than a child- care centre,” says the head of the research project, Professor Anne Smith, of the Children’s Issues Centre at the University of Otago. “We found that most parents are incredibly happy with
their child care, no matter what the quality was. The parents would say things like, `My child is perfectly happy, the staff are warm and caring’, about centres that we regarded as mediocre or poor.

“Some centres that we went to were distressing to the researchers.

(The children suffered from) boredom, wandering listlessly from one activity to another; there was more crying . . .
Overall, we found no relationship between parent satisfaction and the quality of care.”
Eighty per cent of parents had settled for the first centre they looked at, with less than 4 per cent knowledgeable enough to shop around and examine such issues as staff/child ratios and staff qualifications.

In good centres, the children were happy: “It’s not realistic to expect kids to be happy 100 per cent of the time, especially the under-twos. But in a good-quality centre, there shouldn’t be any more ups and downs than there are at home,” Smith says.

The most important component of quality was the warmth, responsiveness and consistency of the staff, she says. She believes the under-twos should have a ratio of one carer to every three children, with each child assigned an adult to be their special friend. And the centre’s staff should be stable, so that children do not get attached to caregivers only to lose them. Smith found that the caregivers’ level of wages per hour was the most important predictor of overall quality.

Ochiltree, now a lecturer in family studies in the Institute of Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University, advises parents to choose carefully and remain watchful. If there are aspects of the care that make you or the child unhappy, talk to the staff. If it doesn’t improve, move the child.

She is disturbed by the tone of the public child-care debate.

“What I object to most is the idea that mother has disappeared from the lives of children in child care. Of course, she hasn’t.

As much as children at home, they have mothers who are concerned about them and their parents remain the continuous figures in their lives throughout childhood.

“It’s also made to sound like they enter child care and stay there until they enter school. It’s not so. Many mothers are in and out of the workforce, often doing part-time work . . . And grandparents are actually the biggest providers of (non-parental) child care.”
Official statistics challenge the idea of parental deprivation.

When he analysed Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys on how people spent their time, the researcher Michael Bittman found that both mothers and fathers are spending more time with their children now than they did eight years ago. Women are cutting back on laundry and cooking, not on the kids.

Bittman, of the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, speculates that the concern about children being deprived of their mothers could be a form of “moral panic”. The term was coined by the sociologist Stan Cohen to describe the way a vague sense of unease becomes a public question of “Where will it all end?” It arises when there is discomfort about a big social change in this case, women re-entering the workforce. After public exaggeration, pronouncements by experts and stereotyping of the people being discussed, the discomfort becomes alarm. Ultimately, whatever is at issue comes to be seen as a threat to society’s values and interests.

Says Bittman, “One possible explanation (for this) is rising expectations. If over the years, mothers . . . are expected to do many more things for their children than an earlier generation of mothers, then it follows that the actual increase in time devoted to child care falls behind expectations that rise at a more rapid rate.”
What of Leunig’s tiny weeping bundle? Australia has few small babies in formal care, says Ochiltree, and maybe most of them wouldn’t be there if we had better parental leave.

In Sweden, which has what might be the world’s best and most widely used child-care system, few babies under nine months are in care because parents are entitled to 18 months paid leave after a birth, and they mostly choose to use it.

Three degrees of separation.

To study the effects odf child care on babies’ relationships with their mothers, researchers have used the `strange situation’ technique.

Gay Ochiltree explains in Effects of Child Care on Young Children that the child is put in a strange room with its mother and is observed during a series of events, including the mother leaving, a stranger entering and the mother returning.

Babies considered to be “securely attached” to their mothers protest or cry on separation but greet her with pleasure when she returns and are fairly easy to comfort. Those who are insecure-avoidant appear to be independent but reject mother when she returns, while those who are insecure-resistant are clingy and seek mother when she returns but resist her efforts at comfort. It has been argued that insecure attachment could be linked with later social and emotional problems. In America, it is estimated that about 30 per cent of babies of at-home mothers are insecurely attached.

American researcher Jay Belsky, reviewing studies involving 491 infants, found that those who had more than 20 hours a week of non-maternal care in the first year of life were 1.

6 times more likely to be insecurely attached, with boys more affected than girls. But other factors must also be at work, Belsky said, as many of those exposed to the “risk factor” of long day care as babies had not been affected.

But attachment research has been questioned regarding its suitability for children in day care. It has also been criticised for its focus on the child’s attachment to the mother.

First published in The Age.