“The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”1
There is a growing movement sweeping across Canada that is transforming early education. It was propelled with a Report to the Premier of Ontario by Dr. Charles Pascal in 2009 called, “With Our Best Future in Mind.” 2 This 1.5 billion dollar plan proposed universal full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-olds with long-term plans for gradual expansion to one-stop Centres for children from the prenatal period to age 12.
At a conference held in Ottawa, Canada (2011), Dr. Jonas Himmelstrand, a researcher from Sweden, shared that his country has had a universally accessible, government-funded daycare system since 1975. And while there are no babies in daycare, 92% of all children aged 18 months to five years are in daycare. The result of the generations of universal daycare have left Sweden’s children less educated, and more distant from parents. 3
Moreover, he cautions the social toll is the negative outcome for children and adolescents in areas of health and behavior. He adds direct causation is hard to prove, but “many health-care professionals point to the lack of parent involvement beyond the first 16 months as a primary contributing factor.” 4 Dr. Himmelstrand concludes, “making childrearing a state responsibility has not proven to be a success.” 5
How Do We Reconcile This Conundrum?
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, and generally regarded as the Father of Attachment Theory, with Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, emphasized the significance of our first infant/mother bond in historic studies in “Attachment and Loss” (1969-1982).6 They found attachment is the necessary prerequisite to a successful learner within a safe, secure and stable home with an empathic and nurturing environment.
And Margaret Mahler, a psychoanalyst and co-author of the book, The “Psychological Birth of the Human Infant” (1975) tells us, “the biological birth of the human infant and the psychological birth of the individual are not coincident in time.” 7 She says infants gradually begin to differentiate from the mother in a symbiotic psychological process she refers to as “hatching,”and it begins about the fourth or fifth month to the 36th month. This process involves the child’s achievement of “separate functioning in the presence of, and with the emotional availability of the mother.” 8
The explosion in neuroscience research over these past few decades can now show these early discoveries in child development are neurologically and biologically based. The Canadian Institute of Child Health in Ottawa (1999, 2008),9 reports the brain at birth is highly underdeveloped. While billions of cells are built into the physical structure, the “wiring” between them will be laid out by environmental stimulation.
This triggers a cascade of biochemicals that affects everything from emotions to movement to memory and learning. Simple interactions like a mother’s touch triggers the neurons to grow and connect into complex systems and with repetition, become well defined. This wiring will become the foundation for functioning as it shapes the neural architecture for the future.
These findings are extremely significant, not only in developing healthy children ready to learn, but in preventing the already growing problems in mental health and behavior disorders.
For example, Statistics Canada reports in Youth Crime in Canada (2014),10 while youth age 12 to 17 made up seven percent of the Canadian population, they accounted for 13% of persons accused of crime. Since the Youth Criminal Justice Act (2003) came into effect to divert youth away from the formal justice system, youth crimes have been falling, but among those accused, charge rates were higher for violent offences (51%), and (38%) for property.
And the widespread use of medications for Attention-Deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), one of the most common mental health conditions in children, is characterized by “inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.” 11 Boys are three times more likely to develop ADHD than girls and symptoms appear between the ages of three and five. Similar trends are shown in mental health disorders, such as bullying behaviors12 and suicides.13
Remarkably, this increase in social problems among the young also coincides with an increase of children in varied child-care arrangements. In Child Care in Canada (2011), Statistics Canada reports over the last three decades, the need for child care has grown steadily with the rise in employment rates among women, dual-income families, along with lone-parent and step-families. The employment rate of women with children under six has more than doubled between 1976 and 2009 from 31% to 67% (Ferrao 2010).14 The majority of parents (86%) used child care arrangements on a regular basis. 15
Should this trend prove to be a primary contributing factor, the following generations may well be swamped by a tsunami of social problems. If, as Bowlby states, “attachment is a biological necessity¦and a key to survival,” 16 how do we reconcile extending non-maternal and institutionalized care for prolonged periods in the formative years with Attachment Theory?
The best funded and best constructed daycare, even dressed up as “early childhood education,” cannot fulfill the child’s biological need for parental attachment. Consistency and stability cannot be ensured even in the best of daycares. Sufficient ratios of adult to child will always be a struggle to maintain. Staff will change as their personal lives dictate. This is a job, after all, and emotional investment is not the primary bond.
Change is slow and difficult, but there are solutions on the horizon. In The Real Wealth of Nations (2007), Riane Eisler,17 a social scientist and activist, suggests that social activists should focus on shifting the culture from an archaic domination system inherited from past eras to partnerships towards primary relations between women and men and parents and children.
This shift is already in place with businesses like the SAS Institute, the world’s largest privately-held software company. It demonstrates “corporate responsibility to enduring commitment to employees, environment and communities” 18 It reaps the benefits of caring policies and practices in dollars and cents.
Learning will be child’s play to those fortunate children who have been provided with the building blocks of education.
- Pascal, Charles, E., (2009), With Our Best Future in Mind. Report to the Premier of Ontario by the Special Advisor on Early Learning. www.ontario.ca/earlylearning.
- Himmelstrand, Dr. Jonas, http://www.imfcanada.org/article_files/Jonas_Himmelstrand_Limits of-welfare-state_National_Post_Apr_26_2011.pdf
- Bowlby, J., with Ainsworth, M. (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)
- Canadian Institute of Child Health. (1999, reprinted in 2008). The first years last forever. Ottawa: Canadian Institute of Child Health. Retrieved from http://www.cich.ca/PDFfiles/FirtYearsEngWEB.pdf. NOTE: IMFC has since melded into Cardus, a Canadian public policy think tank.
- http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-652-x/2014005/hl-fs-eng.htm (Highlights)
- Bowlby, J. (1952). Prevention of maternal deprivation. Monograph 11, London: World Health Organization (157)
- http://www.partnershipway.org/. Eisler, Riane, The Real Wealth of Nations, Berrett-Koehler, Inc., 2007, San Francisco, CA. 2007 (218-225)