It is well established that the first twelve months of a child’s life play a pivotal role in a person’s physical and mental development. This is the age when brain development is, arguably, at its highest. Children learn to walk, talk, co-ordinate. Theirs is a world of inquisitiveness as they explore their environment, all of which is new to them. The same is true of their emotional and behavioural development. In a loving and caring environment the child gains esteem, building a positive resilience in the knowledge that they are being supported. In the first twelve months, the young child endeavours to build secure attachments to their primary carer, usually the mother, and then with other family members.
If a child is placed outside of the family unit at this formative stage then secure attachment may be compromised. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need as a benchmark, placing a baby in childcare may result in their physiological and basic health and safety needs being met but we cannot be certain that its emotional needs are met. The younger a child is when placed with a carer and the longer it is away from its parents the more likely its sense of belonging will be compromised. It would be natural for a baby, developmentally between the ages of 6 weeks to 7 months, to strike an attachment to the adult it spends most of its waking day with. This might be the childcare adult in preference to the parent. This situation may create uncertainty in the young child, leading to anxiety, stress and affecting their emerging self-esteem.
Much is made of children being born into poverty and the deprivation that ensues but what of the child born today in any social demographic where the parents are absent during these formative weeks and months? Diana Baumind identified four types of parenting one of them being neglectful. We have all seen the upsetting pictures of child neglect but is this too strong a term to describe parents who, as Nicky Morgan the Education secretary did in a BBC interview?
“Some parents struggle to find just ten minutes a day to read to sons and daughters because of the demands of work”
Other parents compensate for their absence by over-indulging their children. This permissive approach can lead to dietary issues such as child obesity and tooth decay, conditions not normally associated with negligence.
Research tells us that the absence of a discrete primary care-giver leads to insecure attachments which in turn reduce self-esteem and builds a negative resilience, sometimes described as a ‘survival instinct’. The rise in challenging behaviour in schools is often put down to an eroding respect for teachers and their inability to discipline but the root cause goes much deeper. It is well documented that insecure attachment manifests itself as ADHD, ADD, ODD, PTSD and other socio/emotional behaviour conditions. S.E.B.D is no longer the sole domain of the poor in society.
We cannot expect childcare providers to provide the necessary ‘emotional nurturing’, although many do exactly that as a result of their professional expertise, because by doing so they run the risk of, literally, taking the place of the parent in the eyes of the child. Nor can we assume that leaving children with a family member will fill the emotional vacuum. So where does this leave the child?
Modern day parenting is driven by social trends. The demand on some families is such that both parents have to work in order to keep a roof over their heads. The situation is further complicated by issues over equality and the rights of both parents to have a career. There is also the more insidious aspect of governments trying to boost GDP buy encouraging a debt driven economy which may create jobs but the consequence of the ensuing rampant consumerism is that both parents have to work to maintain their lifestyle.
Something has to give. There has to be compromise. After about 12 months, although child development is continuing, the resilience of the child is better established. It should be borne in mind that insecure attachment can occur at any point in person’s life, be that parental divorce, bereavement or other cause of emotional trauma so any change in routine needs to handled sensitively.
The timing of moving from full-time parental care to a part-time one is significant. In many countries maternity leave is quite short, around three months. This coincides with both parents being back at work when secure attachment between primary caregiver and child is at its most vulnerable. If leave of absence was longer, around twelve months, this would support wellbeing and a child’s mental health development in these early stages. This of course would have financial implications for governments and for business. Is it right for parents to have to choose between having a child and having a career? Should they not be able to have both without risking the wellbeing of their child?
There are those in society who think that parents today are trying to have their cake and eat it. But society has changed. Yes there are families who may have their priorities wrong and put material assets before their child’s wellbeing, deluding themselves that all the extras will somehow improve the child’s quality of life. However, for many families today, both parents need to work just to keep their heads above water.
Businesses that value their employees play their part but some are more interested in profit than helping their staff. The link between business and altruism is at best a tenuous one. Unscrupulous companies are reluctant to support maternity leave let alone allow employees to take a break and then resume their careers where they left off.
Around 78% of families use some sort of childcare. Those that run nurseries have to have a level three qualification in childcare. But that is not the case with childcare ‘assistants’ who make up the majority of the adults in childcare. Much of the pay at this level is barely above the minimum wage.
Why is nursery education not a degree entry profession like the rest of education and paid accordingly? Of all the areas within education Pre-school is where there is least investment from all levels in society and yet this is where the foundations of social, emotional and educational development are built.
This article has been adapted from the book ‘Children in Need: Education, Wellbeing & the pursuit of GDP’. I am also the author of the book ‘Understanding Challenging Behaviour in the inclusive classroom’ (Routledge).