Better childcare will curb social ills

The first few years of a child’s life are the most important; it is in these early years that the quality of their lives is laid down. Yet too many parents who wish to nurture their children at home are being forced back to work by financial pressures when their children are still babies.

We need to level the financial playing field for parents. The current system pressurises mothers – and it is mostly mothers – into going back to work soon after their children are born. Yet the research shows that the seeds of later unhappiness and antisocial behaviour by young people are often sown by the failure of parents to form a close and loving relationship with their babies.

Society is paying a high price for the quick fix of getting mothers back to work so soon after birth.

We seem, as a society, to place economic and academic concerns well above relationships despite the latter’s crucial role in a child’s – and later an adult’s – wellbeing. Regardless of the very large body of scientific and sociological evidence, children’s policy and political thinking miss the influence of the early years on a host of social problems we face today.

I asked Dr Samantha Callan to form the Early Years Commission to study this question. Its report, which will be published tomorrow, should make compelling reading for policy makers and parents. Crucially it shows that violent and antisocial behaviour by young people can be traced back to parental neglect when they were very young. They in turn pass on this dysfunction to their own children, perpetuating the cycle.

Professor Margot Sunderland, a child mental health expert on the commission, unambiguously stated that the quality of childcare has lifelong consequences for mental health as the first three years of a child’s life are crucial for healthy brain development and psychological stability.

The yardstick of quality applies across the spectrum of childcare: parental, informal and formal. It’s not the case that home care is always good and nursery always bad. But whether it is politically correct to admit this or not, there is a “hierarchy” of quality in childcare that policy is currently ignoring.

If parents want more than anything else to be with their children most of the time in the early years, and want to give them the continuity and intensity of relationship that science says they need, then surely they are the ones best placed to provide it.

Facilitating this aspiration should be a cornerstone of childcare policy. If parents don’t want to do this or cannot (and 81% of parents said financial pressures made them return to work early), the emotional and cognitive needs of their children must still be met.

This can be done by well motivated family members, well trained nursery nurses or other childcare professionals who have the time to give them enough one-to-one care. The evidence shows that, after motivated parents, family members offer an excellent childcare source.

Yet at present they are discounted by policy makers. Worryingly the commission also heard that childcare professionals are unsure if they should even hug children and that many nurseries prioritise health and safety and administrative needs, not personal childcare. Empathy doesn’t feature in the measurement of care quality, yet it is critical.

It seems that most of the public sense that policy is wrong. When asked in our poll, 82% of adults said that more should be done to help parents who wish to stay at home in those early years and some 70% felt that parents were encouraged to put their children into daycare too soon.

We need a fairer system in which the financial sacrifice of giving up work to look after a baby is offset by extra help from the tax and benefit system. The commission’s report recommends “front-loading” child benefit so a larger proportion of the child’s total entitlement would be available during the first three years when parents most want to spend time caring for children and when attachment and intensive nurture are most important.

It also recommends transferable tax allowances to reflect the fact that, if one spouse is not working outside the home, that family requires more support from the tax system. Similarly the benefits system should not penalise low-income couples who want to live together – which requires tackling the “couple penalty”. And it proposes a change in the rules to allow working parents to use childcare tax credits to pay unregistered close relatives to look after children.

With the growing demand on mental health facilities, the rising number of children in care and the peculiarly high levels of dysfunctional family behaviour, our failure to place cognitive and social development in the early years at the heart of our policy for children is already costing us dear. It is surely time to change all of that.

Source: Times Online, UK