When Paddy Holmes, chairman of the Independent Schools Association Incorporated, prophesied last week that society would "reap the dividends" of taking children from their mothers at ever younger ages, some of the comment that followed strangely resembled that on Conservative pronouncements about single mothers. The same glee at discovering a mute scapegoat for society's ills was evident. And the lurid picture contained the same gaping hole. Where were the men?
When John Redwood toured the Cardiff council estate whose single mothers so appalled him, he said little about the absent fathers because, oddly enough, they were nowhere to be seen. When BBC2's Quality Time documentary captured the misery of the poor little rich girls and boys abandoned to a succession of nannies, the fathers mostly managed to stay out of shot. But it is families, not just mothers, who make these decisions.
Every man who, standing in front of an estate agent's window, has added his wife's or girlfriend's salary to his, multiplied by two-and-a-half and bought a bigger house than the family can really afford, bears his share of responsibility. It is hard to imagine most fathers simply failing to notice the hefty school fee cheques for the children who made up last year's 27 per cent rise in the number of two-year-olds in private schools.
What could be a real debate about the right age for children to spend time away from parents has been hijacked by those who would probably rather be saying (but do not dare to) that mothers should keep out of the workforce and leave the jobs for the men.
Anyway, what is so terrible about sending two-year-olds to nursery schools? My elder son has just started his at two and a quarter, still in nappies because that's what toddlers wear,and I believe that for the few mornings he is there he is enjoying himself more, on balance, than he would at home. One-to-one care may sound better than eight-to-one, but there are times when the reality is one to what's left after the baby has been fed and the battle against domestic chaos lost.
Good nursery schools, which offer trained staff, an environment that children can see is designed for them and a chance to develop social skills, quite obviously have their part to play for the child who is ready. Nobody seems to object to playgroups, so why should a well-run nursery school be worse than amateur anarchy in the church hall while the mums sit round gossiping?
Mrs Holmes later made it clear that she was not talking about nursery schools in particular but about full-time care for two-year-olds at day nurseries. But she certainly seems to be clinging to an oversimplified version of the views of the psychiatrist she cited, the influential John Bowlby, author of Child Care and the Growth of Love.
Bowlby suggested that repeated or persistent separation from the primary carer, usually the mother, before the age of three could lead to emotional problems in later life. But subsequent research pointed out that frequent separations often take place alongside poor parenting and involve poor alternative care. These may be among the factors involved if children develop difficulties later. There is a difference, for example, between staying regularly with a familiar grandparent and being dumped unexpectedly with strangers.
None of the experts has shown that day care, even in the first year of life, as long as it is of a reasonable standard, leads to emotional trouble in later life - though there is some controversial evidence that more than 20 hours a week of day care in the first year may increase "anxious attachment" behaviour and perhaps vulnerability. However, most experts insist that there is little difference between small children in day care and those looked after at home - provided, that is, day care is good, which cannot be taken for granted.
So there is no reason to believe that users of day care are breeding a generations of misfits. But before we all rush back to the office, an awkward fact remains. Social scientific research offers only generalisations. According to Professor Antony Cox of the Bloomfield Centre for Child Mental Health at Guy's Hospital in London: "Much depends on the individual child and their family. For some children, the experience of day care might not be good - for example if there is tension between the family and day carers."
That concern suggests that even if quality day care is all right in general, individual families would be ill-advised to build a two-income lifestyle on the assumption that day care will work for a child perhaps as yet unborn. If the child takes to day care, good, but if she does not, nobody, male or female, has the right to place career progression or money above their child's mental health.
The experts cannot be sure, but it seems plausible that problems are more likely with full-time working, and 10-hours-a-day nannies, than with occasional, limited day care. If so, we are looking at a middle-class dilemma. At every income level, many mothers of pre-school children work part-time. But in the professional, employer and managerial class one in three mothers of under-fives works full-time, compared to one in 50 of the unskilled.
Yet it is surely these better-off families that have some freedom to choose a lifestyle which does not require two full-time incomes. For the worse-off, perhaps in areas such as the South-east where house prices are relatively high, it may be different. Single parents will find themselves with little choice, and so will those who discover too late that their employers are inflexible. But it must be wise, if you have the luxury of being able to plan ahead, not to pick a lifestyle that will oblige you to put an infant into full-time day care for good.
That does not mean driving all mothers back into the kitchen. Quite apart from personal fulfilment, even where they can afford to sacrifice income for the present, it is only prudent to maintain some ability to earn in a world where there are no more jobs for life. A solution, clearly, is adequate part-time work and opportunities for women "returners". Instead of worrying about nurseries, employers should be thinking of more ways to cater for career breaks and part-timing. Are they doing so? Or are they too busy looking for someone to blame for producing the problem children of tomorrow?
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