The Australian Federal Government recently announced that it will introduce a package of new measures to provide more flexible and accessible childcare to better meet the needs of what it calls “modern families”. The $11 million trials will include overnight and weekend care for the children of shift workers, extended weekday hours and more out of school hours care to “remove the barriers to workforce participation”. The media release, issued by the Minister for Childcare, was seasoned with references to how the trial responds to the needs of families and helps parents in the “work/family juggle”. The Minister spoke about the way in which the significant growth in women’s workforce participation in recent decades had created extra demand for childcare.
And demand it has created. There are around 6500 childcare centres in Australia offering long day care (from early morning to early evening) and the number of centres is increasing by about 250 centres per year. That of course means the number of clients are on the rise with 1.9 million children in 2011 attending one or more types of childcare, which was just over half of Australian children aged 12 or younger.
Without a doubt childcare is seen as an acceptable and even a socially responsible path. Reports are seen in the media from time-to-time extolling the value that quality childcare can bring in the well being of children. The studies seem to indicate that the more time childcare staff spend being actively engaged with the children, the better their social and emotional development. One expert on child development was quoted as saying the highest quality childcare is provided in those centres where the children are “loved to bits”. What? Have we reached such a place where the most obvious data seems to surprise us? The fact that children need to be loved and given attention is the most basic piece of human programming yet it is as if we are discovering it afresh.
What is most discouraging though is that in all the talk of childcare – from government ministers to journalists to university academics – no one seems to be able (or willing) to annunciate the elephant in the room. And that elephant is that children fare best within the care of their parents, and in most circumstances that primary care is usually given through the mother. Yet instead of highlighting the essential nature of parents in the direct raising of their children, the federal government assigns a special minister to childcare and proceeds to undertake trials that will essentially allow parents to be more absent from their children than ever before.
Allow me to say that I am not criticising those who work in childcare, the families who opt to use childcare or mothers who work. What I want to point out is the strange disconnect that seems exists. Too many people seem very intent on making us all feel good about childcare and as far as I can see the reason for this is simply to keep women in workforce participation. Without a doubt our society needs women in various positions of employ meaning that there will be times when the children of these mothers will need to be looked after, hence the genuine need for childcare. But with half of Australian children in some form of regular childcare one can’t help but wonder if we have inverted our priorities as a nation.
Childcare is not the sign of a healthy nation. If all the mothers of the world went to work tomorrow that would not be an asset. Any nation is best served by having young children with their parents. The Australian government boasts about its investment of $23.1 billion into early childhood education and care, but where is the allocation to assist mothers to stay at home to be with their children? A mother may opt to work and that is her prerogative but too many find themselves having to work to pay the bills. Too many mothers receive subliminal messages that their value and worth is to be found in paid employment. This is an unfortunate lie. Children need their mothers, not part time, but full time. A healthy nation needs its mothers being mothers. We speak of childcare as if it is normal to take a toddler and leave them in the care of strangers (however genuine and well trained they might be) in their most formative years. A nation that is overly proud of its achievements in burgeoning childcare numbers has truly missed the point.