• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Nanny state has no business muscling mums and dads out of the way

It seems that politicians in and out of government cannot resist the temptation of intervening in people’s private lives. Since 2009, Australia has a minister whose explicit brief is to deal with early childhood. The officially endorsed Early Years Learning Framework is based on the assumption that government can never intercede early enough in children’s lives to compensate for the incompetence of their parents.

The Early Years Learning movement is based on the principle that since most parents - particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds - cannot be trusted to bring up their children satisfactorily, professional intervention is needed.

Typically, the call for greater state intervention in family life begins with a claim that new research has conclusively shown that something can and must be done to ensure that children thrive and realise their potential. During the past decade such calls are frequently based on what can best be described as the Myth of the First Three Years. According to this myth, children’s intellectual development is determined in the first three years of their lives. Parenting professionals represent early-years child-rearing as a particularly difficult and complicated enterprise that demands the input of experts. These days they invariably claim that neuroscience has shown that unless a child’s brain is stimulated properly in its first three years, irreparable damage will be done. Consequently early intervention of early years education becomes the only responsible, if not mandatory, policy option.

Recently a variant of the early-years myth was put forward by an honorary professorial fellow in education at the University of Melbourne, Joseph Sparling. He stated that the first three years of a child’s life were the critical time for early learning and warned that waiting until the year before children started school was nothing short of “neglect”. Apparently all those millions of 2 to 3-year-old children, who are cruelly denied the attention of professional early-years experts, constitute an army of neglected infants.

Sparling’s view echoes that of the Gillard government, strong advocates of early-years intervention. Consequently the government can now boast that it has a Minister for Early Childhood (Peter Garrett). One of its usual “research shows . . .” press releases, on October 24, stated, “research shows that experiences in the first five years shape future life outcomes and the Gillard Labor government is investing to make sure that future is bright for our youngest citizens”. A few days later the Minister for Employment Participation and Child Care, Kate Ellis, repeated the mantra and stated “research shows that the first five years of a child’s life are critical and have the potential to shape their future outcomes”.

As it happens, the fatalistic thesis that children’s future is determined in their early years is a political dogma rather than the product of rigorous science. The idea that a child’s intellectual development is determined during the first three years of its life goes against much of what we know about learning. Children who are slow at learning to read at the age of six or seven often go on to master this skill three or four years later. As the University of Birmingham psychologist Stuart Derbyshire argues, “the current obsession with parenting and early-years intervention is not science-based, but is another example of the tendency to individualise social problems that may then be addressed through lifestyle interventions such as parenting classes”. He believes that the “science is being manipulated and invented to justify a policy that is already active”.

Derbyshire’s warning that early-years education is actually a masquerade for lifestyle intervention is important. Take the Australian government’s recently announced decision to fund a $32.5 million Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters. This initiative is described as a “two-year home-based parenting and early childhood enrichment program that builds the confidence and skills of parents and carers”. So the target of this project are the parents. Its objective has little to do with education but with shaping the lifestyles of parents.

The principal driver of early-years education policy is the belief that parents are simply not up to the job of raising and socialising their children. This view - which is widely held by policy-makers and their experts - looks to professional intervention to compensate for what they regard as the parenting deficit. While advocates of this policy emphasise that their main concern is to support disadvantaged parents, they are not averse to casting their nets wider and targeting all families.

It is important to comprehend that The Early Years Learning Framework promoted by the Australian government has little to do with real education. In any case, the last thing 3 to 4-year-old children need is formal education. The Early Years Learning Framework implicitly recognises this point, which is why it opts for what it describes as a “strong emphasis on play-based learning”.

The intellectual poverty of this project is demonstrated by this attempt to harness play to achieve a policy objective. Instead of allowing children to be children and playing to be playing, policy-makers wish to organise spontaneity out of their lives. The mission of regulating and formalising play is justified on the grounds that “play is the best vehicle for young children’s learning providing the most appropriate stimulus for brain development”.

The constantly repeated claim that unless children are stimulated under professional supervision their brains will be at risk seeks to prey on parental insecurities. Such claims are often represented through the idiom of panic-mongering. Take a report authored by UK Labour MP Graham Allen. Titled Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings, its cover shows pictures of the brain of a child who has had early-years intervention and one who has not. There is massive contrast between the large brain of the normal child and the shrivelled brain of the neglected child. Such propaganda has only one objective, which is to intimidate parents.

Parents, of course, do face numerous challenges. And there is a case for the provision of proper childcare facilities, to make life easier for parents who work. But parents do not need to be subjected to intrusive interventions in their family life. Parents who are already insecure about bringing up their child do not need to be exposed to unhelpful scaremongering about the alleged risks to their toddler’s brains. And finally, let children get on with playing. Playing is good in and of itself and does not need to be turned into a worthy educational exercise.

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