Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Culture 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 love.

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 entertained.

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 adults.

First published in the New Statesman 28 May 2001