wars hit the nursery
Working mothers are perfect targets for the guilt-tripping expert.
That is particularly so if they leave very young children in the
care of a nursery or a childminder. British experts specialise in
promoting the idea that the children of working mothers do badly
in school. In March, for example, a study claimed that, if mothers
go out to work full-time, their children are less likely to grow
into teenagers who pass their A levels.
The US experts threaten mothers with worse. Last month, the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported that children
who spend much of their first four years in daycare are likely to
be more aggressive and disobedient than those who stay at home with
their mothers. After the recent spate of school shootings, aggressive
children are a big worry in the US. "Am I training my son to
be a juvenile delinquent by putting him into daycare?" asked
one bemused working mother on a Boston phone-in programme. Another
survey, released by the University of California at Berkeley in
April, claimed that a high turnover of childcare-centre workers
was undermining the quality of pre-school education in the US. "Without
a skilled and stable workforce," it noted, "efforts to
provide growth-enhancing experiences are severely constrained."
What should mothers believe about childcare? They should start
from the understanding that, though the research may look scientific,
the debate is really a cultural one. It is a vehicle for what are
essentially moral concerns about the changing status of women and
the decline of the traditional family, an extension of the culture
wars into the nursery. On a CNN special programme devoted to childcare,
the conservative commentator Robert Novak was absolutely delighted
to discover that childcare kids turn into aggressive monsters. Why?
Because it was a "blow for the feminists, who defend dumping
their children in a daycare centre". Publications such as Charles
Siegel's What's Wrong with Day Care continually reinforce a theme
in America's culture war, which is that the non-parental care of
infants is abhorrent and unnatural.
Although the proportion of American mothers at work continues to
grow, the crusade against daycare creates ambiguity. I talked recently
to a group of professional women in Boston. They had all read newspaper
accounts of the recently published research and were all sceptical,
even hostile, towards the report. "Who is doing this research,
anyway?" asked Melissa, a 29year-old physiotherapist with two
daughters. "This is just another excuse to dump on women."
Yet the women had nothing good to say about daycare. "If you
can, you get a nanny," was how Lynn, a 32-year-old educational
consultant, put it. A survey last year indicated that 70 per cent
of American parents agreed with the statement that "parents
should rely on a daycare centre when they have no other option".
In other words, whatever their own instincts, American mothers have
had their confidence in daycare undermined by the supposed authority
of scientific research.
Ideas about maternal employment and professional childcare are
shaped by the prevailing moral and cultural values. Through the
1950s and most of the 1960s, child-rearing professionals promoted
the idea that children aged under three needed the continuous presence
of their mothers. Dr Spock led the way in declaring that maternal
employment was likely to be harmful to a child's development. Children
exposed to nursery care were portrayed as emotionally deprived,
their development stunted by lack of stimulation. Parents were warned
that, if others cared for their babies, they would lose the child's
The steady growth of female paid employment made such a one-sided
argument difficult to sustain. Liberal and feminist child-rearing
experts began to offer their own advice, arguing that maternal employment
had considerable benefits for family life. Writers such as Spock
modified their opinions.
So child-rearing practices associated with traditional family morality
could no longer be advocated in an undiluted form. They required
the authority of science and research. It was at this point that
anti-- daycare research took off. The British anti-- daycare group
What About the Children? uses an imaginary conversation with a six
month-old baby to illustrate its view that the best option for the
child is for Mum to stick around at home and Dad to encourage and
support her as much as possible. It quotes research to support its
argument. Supporters of working mothers tend to imitate their opponents'
approach, quoting other studies stating that quality childcare will
benefit children. Some US studies purport to show that children
who attend nursery are five times less likely than other children
to become delinquent.
These claims and counter-claims about daycare research avoid a
principled debate on the subject. Research on the effect of maternal
employment was started at a time when there was widespread moral
disapproval of working mothers. There was a clear expectation that
children would receive an inferior standard of parenting if they
grew up in a family where the mother went out to work. Many researchers
looked for nothing but problems. Their questions were framed in
such a way as to elicit information about symptoms of anxiety, dysfunctional
behaviour and disruption to family life. The possibility that maternal
employment might bring some benefits to family life was simply not
Now that maternal employment has become a reality, research questions
about its impact are no longer posed so one-sidedly. But value judgements
still tend to shape the research. In an important study, two New
Zealand academics, John Horwood and David Fergusson, conclude that
we should not be asking: "Is maternal labour force participation
harmful or beneficial?" Rather, we need research into "patterns
of family life, child supervision and support that may lead maternal
labour force participation to have harmful or beneficial effects".
How children develop is only in part determined by the nature and
quality of their childcare. Their lives are rooted in a network
of social, cultural, environmental, economic and family relationships.
Whether they thrive or suffer within a particular institution or
relationship depends on influences that cannot be reduced to the
simplistic language of cause and effect.
In the end, children's experience of childcare is influenced as
much by how society regards working mothers as by what actually
happens within the walls of the nursery. Their reaction to their
mother's paid work is largely scripted through the stories about
it that adults tell. If society sends the message that childcare
is second best to the 11 real thing", it will be picked up
and internalised by infants, providing good material for anti-daycare
researchers. But if children are encouraged to take pride in their
mothers' jobs and to regard the nursery as their natural environment,
their experience will be very different.
In other words, if society thinks mothers should stay at home,
daycare will probably turn out to be a bad thing for children. If,
on the other hand, society thinks women should be able to gain fulfilment
through careers, daycare will probably turn out to be a good thing.
We should make nurseries a no-go area for the moral confusions haunting
published in the New Statesman 28 May 2001