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Home Truths Absent in Early Childcare Debate: We Need Parent-Friendly Policy Options

More subsidized, universally available, affordable, high quality, professional childcare is often advocated as a way of advancing the interests of women.

Yet early long day care is not in the best interests of very young children and their families. Evidence increasingly suggests that this childcare agenda is misconceived, because it:

A rethink is needed.

We each have a pedigree of maternal ancestors who, overall, were selected, over thousands of generations, for their success in all aspects of healthy mothering: pregnancy, childbirth, breast­feeding, attachment, and the protecting and rearing of baby girls who grew up to do likewise, not in splendid isolation, but in social groups with others having an enduring interest in the child.

The question should not be "how can everybody have affordable, quality childcare?" It should be: "Taking into account the biologically-determined nature and needs of young human beings and their mothers, how, in our de-tribalized societies, can we best help and support parents who wish to do a mutually satisfying job of mothering and fathering their infants and young children without jeopardizing their own futures?"

If some of the effort devoted to seeking high-quality childcare were used creatively to support high quality parenting, we would be nearer to our real goal of enhancing the well-being of mothers, young children and society.

We could recognize that mothers with infants and young children are an essential, vulnerable group, unique in society, having special needs for a few short years. Infancy cannot be re-run later.

Governments can encourage community appreciation of home-caring parents for their parenting and other contributions to society. In the gross domesticproduct, we could show the multi-billion-dollar value of mothers' work and mothering at home.

Parents should be free to make informed decisions, but economic justice for the family is a pre-condition for real choice. The next advance in women's rights could be affirmative action in favor of mothers of young children, to give freedom of choice.

If we are to pay for the care of children, why not pay mothers to do it?

We need family incomes policies offering equal opportunity for home-caring parents, especially mothers of children under three. Economic policies have been unfavorable to these families, compared with two-income families using subsidized childcare.

Governments could be neutral, offering the available money fairly to all parents, to care for their very young children as they choose, especially while children are under five. Mothers also need provision for superannuation, if the economic sacrifices of early childrearing are not to become a lifelong handicap.

Mothers' needs for relief, help and company must be addressed. Programs of voluntary visiting of new mothers can offer many benefits.

Some childcare centers could become like Swedish "open pre-schools", open to parents, and providing companionship, educational opportunities and facilities for children and their parents. High quality parenting of very young children, does not preclude return to part-time work later, even in pre-school years, but parents may need help to re-enter the work-force.

We need parenting-friendly policy options put before Governments and decision-makers, by the bureaucracy, the Opposition, academe, and the Institute of Family Studies.

Until recently, one ideologically-based view held a monopoly of counsel. It is an unsustainable way of helping women, because it deprives the next generation of women of mothering while they are infants, and also deprives the little boys who will be their partners, and the fathers of their children. Preparation for marriage begins at birth.

This is not "returning to the 1950s". Many problems were inherent in the social isolation and child-rearing ideas of those days. Today we can help young people understand how to achieve more satisfying parent-child relationships than were common in the past.

Preferably, the approach to these issues should be bipartisan, rather than having parties compete in spending on childcare, while neglecting the importance of healthy mothering, and the developmental needs of infants and their families.

Dr. Peter S. Cook is a retired Sydney, Australia child and family psychiatrist, who writes on preventive child and family mental health. He is the author of Early Child Care: Infants and Nations at Risk (Melbourne: News Weekly Books, 1997).

This article was printed on the Opinion page of The Australian, March 24,1999. It is partly based on Dr. Cook's paper "Rethinking the early childcare agenda", Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 170:1, 29-31, Jan 4, 1999, and in his book, Early Child Care - Infant and Nations at Risk, 1997.

Published with permission of the author.