Two-year-old “Janie” takes the little, pink- knitted sweater her grandmother gave her from the small cubicle at the day care center. She holds it close and walks towards the outer door. It is closed. She stares at the door. It is only mid-afternoon. Janie doesn’t express herself well with words yet, but her actions say she wants to go home. No one notices.
Fourteen-month-old “Tommy,” who has been in full time day care since he was six months old, approaches every adult who enters the room muttering “Mama,” regardless of gender. When the phone rings, he toddles over to it, opens up his big eyes, repeatedly calling out, “Mama.” No one notices. I close my eyes and ask myself: “Where is the voice for children? Where is the choice for children?”
The clammer for universal day care keeps growing larger. Proponents argue the social structure has changed. Mobility in terms of women entering the workplace has resulted in the loss of family support systems. Of the 123 million women age 16 years and over in the U.S. in 2010, 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were labor force participants—working or looking for work.1
Economic pressures often force both parents into the work force while many struggle as single parents. For others, pursuing careers is often the impetus to place their children in day care. While these debates may have some validity, they also have one thing in common — they are all based on accommodating parents’ needs. No one seems to be asking the priority question: “Is this really in the best interest of the child?”
A Statistics Canada Report in Child Care in Canada (Maire Sinha , 2015),2 indicates that 54% of parents with children aged four and under used child care. In comparison, 39% of parents with school-aged children (five to 14 years) used some form of non-parental care.
Rather than providing support for stay-at-home parents, government has essentially decreed that day care is the best answer. And, it may be for some families. But establishing these centers as part of the social fabric, not only encourages, but promotes this alternative.
Parental anxiety and guilt may be eased feeling that larger day care facilities would be better regulated, offer greater stability and better quality care in terms of early childhood education. If we look at it strictly from the perspective of the child, however, there are several factors to consider such as age, stability, consistency, research, and most importantly, developing attachment.
Unmet Attachment Has Consequences
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist and the father of attachment theory, along with Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, emphasized the significance of the first infant/mother bond through extensive studies. They found the prerequisite to a successful learner lies within a safe, secure, and stable home with an empathic and nurturing environment (Bowlby, J., with Ainsworth, M. (1969-1982).3
In addition, recent studies in neuroscience can now physically show brain development in infants and toddlers and what this implies for the child’s life-long functioning. As Margaret Mahler, a psychoanalyst and co-author of the book, “The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant” (1975),4 tells us, “The biological birth of the human infant and the psychological birth of the individual are not coincident in time.”
She says infants gradually begin to differentiate from the mother in a symbiotic psychological process she refers to as ‘hatching.’ This process begins about the fourth or fifth month to the 36th month, and involves the child’s achievement of “separate functioning in the presence of, and with the emotional availability of the mother.”
When attachment needs of children are not met, adverse behaviors are the result. I have been working with children from Kindergarten to grade 12 and their families as a child welfare worker for several years and school social worker and parent educator for 20 years. I have been witness to many who functioned poorly because of behavioral, emotional and psychological problems.
If attachment has occurred properly, as separation issues emerge, one must consider the length of time young children may be apart from a parent. When hours turn into long days, week after week, month after month, children may feel a sense of abandonment and bonds of attachment weaken.
“Poor behavior is linked to time in day care” (Benedict Carey, 2007).5 These bonds are the tethers from which parents can hold on to their kids until they are old enough to make good decisions for themselves (“Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers,” 2013).6
We may be well-meaning and well-intentioned, but an adult’s ‘reasons’ are meaningless to a developing brain. There are critical windows of development to which ‘reason’ does not apply. Children need what they need when they need it. The only advance we can make is to recognize it, understand it, and provide it. It may well go a long way towards prevention of many of our present social and mental health problems for future generations.
What kind of consistency and stability can be ensured, even in the best of day cares? Staff, no matter how high the quality, will undoubtedly change, at any time, as their personal lives dictate. It is, after all, a job, not an emotionally impelled commitment to any particular child. The importance of early years is to build blocks of social and emotional brain development through attachment, trust and empathy with another human being.
We are turning the clock backwards. Attachment theory in the 1950s and 1960s led to children no longer being removed from even disadvantaged homes. Now we have created an entire “child-care industry” of paid caregivers to substitute for the parents through the most critical and formative years.
When did children become a commodity to fuel the economy? What are we doing to our children?
In the 21st century, parents have choices. The first is the responsible decision if, or when, to have a baby. The second is to assess what the needs are and to plan for it. That is how the “Janies” and the “Tommys” will have a voice and a choice.
Parents are the best child care workers. We should not be replacing them, but supporting them. Government policies should begin with a move towards changing attitudes about the value and status of the parenting role.
“The steady drop of daily life establishes pathways for lifelong behavior and health that are inextricably linked to the development of the whole child.”7
- https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-652-x/89-652-x2014005-eng.htm. By Maire Sinha, Publications 89-652-X. Date modified: 2015-11-30
- Bowlby, J. (1969-1982) Attachment and loss.Vol.1: Attachment (2nd Ed.) New York: Basic Books
- Mahler, Margaret; Pine, Fred; Bergman, Anni (1975). The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Basic Books, New York, (3,4) (xvii)
- https://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/26/us/26center.html?_r=3. Poor behaviour Is Linked to Time in Day Care. Carey, Benedict (March 26, 2007)
- Neufeld, Gordon and Mate, Gabor. Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, published by Vintage Canada in Canada and a division of Random House in Canada (2013).
- http://ywcacanada.ca/data/research_docs/00000001.pdf. With our best future in mind, C. Pascal, (p.9).