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“Politically correct orphanages? Sterile baby barns that will turn out emotionally stunted children? Is this what they have been building on just about every street corner over the past couple of years?”

(John McCrone “Daycare debate” The Press, Christchurch, 31 October 2009, Mainlander section C1.)

I’ve just been reading an article by The Press feature writer John McCrone about pre-school day care in which the writer describes concerns around the increasing number of babies in full time care.

The main concern raised is about the issue of social attachment. Babies need to have familiar, trusted people they can relate to. However, high staff turnover in most child care facilities makes it difficult to meet the need babies have for stable attachments – a familiar person who shows interest in them beyond feeding and changing nappies.

Infant mental health specialist Lauren Porter says research shows that unless the care of babies in centres is incredibly good, it can be psychologically damaging. “It may lead to poor social attachment and arrested emotional development – unhappy kids who have learnt to switch off.”

Dr Ian Hassall (paediatrician and former Children’s Commissioner) calls the trend to have babies in full time care a “leap into the unknown – a massive, uncontrolled, social experiment.”

Reading this article took me back to Wellington (in I think 2005) when I was part of a small audience invited to hear about the soon to be launched Working for Families policy initiative.

Basically, the policy was about providing incentives (such as subsidising child care, and tax credits), so more women could be encouraged to take up paid employment.

The speech promoting this policy was littered with the word “benefits.” We were told women would benefit economically and socially from being in paid work, babies and young children would benefit from subsidised care, and the country would benefit from the rise in productivity.

In the question and answer session that followed I tried to raise some general issues as to what was driving this policy.

I had understood New Zealand had been a world leader with community and family based care – playcentres,  te kohanga reos, kindergartens,  and playgroups.

I feared what would happen if we moved to a profit-driven model where we were reliant on paying people to care.

I tried illustrating my question about policy drivers by recalling how not so long ago, people in the West had severely criticized the communist Soviet Union for putting children in childcare so that mothers could work. It was clearly stated that we in the West would not put children into day care because we loved our children.  What had changed? What now made it a positive thing to do?

I was approached after by someone who was taken aback by my response and said they were surprised I had taken such an “anti-feminist” stance in not supporting more women into paid work.

Of course, that was not my intention. I think policy framing that prioritises getting women into paid work, no matter what the work, or the circumstances, including the costs to dependent children, is a most unfortunate packaging feminist thinking.

I had been interested in looking at options to meet needs, especially including future needs. To this end, I had been developing a methodology to support local community to develop a more effective and integrated approach to defining and meeting needs – one that recognised and took optimal account of economic, environmental, social, cultural, technological issues and opportunities.

Not surprisingly, given the generosity of the subsidies, the incentives to get more women into paid work worked!

More women are in paid work, more children (especially babies) are in full-time child care, and more centres – especially including the franchised corporate child care chains, are being built.

As to the many benefits: well, it is clear the major beneficiaries are the franchised child care chains who benefit from the generous tax payer funded subsidies.  According to Lauren Porter, parents pay about $200 a week for full time care for their babies and the Ministry of Education (tax payers) will top up this with at least $350, enabling $550 to be collected per child per week.

While it is clear that more women are in paid work, it is not clear about the benefits of this work. Consumption has gone up, along with massive consumer and international economic indebtedness, and yes, more jobs have been created to service this consumption. However, national productivity has not gone up.

As to the cost? Well, McCrone’s article concludes with Early Childhood Council’s chief executive, Sarah Farquhar’s call for people to come together to look at views about child rearing. She stresses the need for parents to have choice and “not to be made to feel guilty about one choice or the other.”

I think we need to broaden the discussion to one that looks at an integrated socio-economic approach to the meeting of needs: the most basic being one of care, especially of our most dependent and vulnerable.

Sadly, policy direction continues to be one of giving over responsibility for this care to institutions that are motivated primarily by maximizing returns on investments (with most of these returns going offshore and adding to the country’s external debt).

We all live somewhere and most of us will get old. Are we looking to a future where we expect to be cared for by generations that have not themselves experienced real care?

There will be more pressures with recession and related economic turbulences. It is difficult to imagine how tax payers can continue to subsidise corporate pre-school centres at present rates. Could these challenges open up gaps to develop policy around real, human forms of care, including in localities where people know or can come to know one another as the people they are, with the needs that they have?

What do you think?

Read interview with John McCrone on Christchurch City Library website about his approach to feature writing.

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