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Home vs. creche - is there a better way?

First there's the child. Then there's the child's family. Then there's the child's community.

If you stick to those rules you don't go far wrong. Think of the kid's welfare first. Think of the kid within the family. Then think of the community around the child.

We have never, ever thought of children in this way. We signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which commits us to putting the best interests of the child first. Then we built a childcare system without doing any research into what children want and need.

We spent a billion between 2000 and 2010 with the aim of creating 90,000 childcare places. And there wasn't even a pretence of putting the child first.

The first creche expansion plan, the Equal Opportunities Childcare Strategy, was designed specifically to get women into the workforce and had no brief to cater for children at all.

No one had ever asked mothers what they wanted, either. I'm guessing very few of them wanted to leave their kids in care all day long so they could pay the bank for an unsellable house somewhere in the boonies.

Some of the money for our childcare programmes came from the EU, which hadn't done any research into kids' needs and certainly hadn't asked mams what they wanted.

Economy

They were afraid mams would say: "I want to go part-time" or "I want to take a few years out". And that didn't suit their agenda. Their Lisbon Strategy committed us to getting 60pc of women between 15 and 64 into the workforce and a third of our three-year-olds into childcare whether they liked it or not.

The economy, stupid... that's what it was all about. Big creches pay big taxes. That was the reason they were such a hit with government, though a poll in Ireland in 2005 found they were the top childcare choice of only 2pc of parents. Even before the Primetime scare, two-thirds of creches were under-used.

Caring for their own kids is the childcare option parents like most and governments like least. The reason is because stay-home parents generate no tax at all. Ditto for kids cared for by other family members and sometimes ditto for informal childminders.

If the child came first then parent-care would be supported by government. Because if a parent wants to stay home with a child – and can afford to – it's likely to be the best childcare that child can have.

In 2004, the famous child psychologist Penelope Leach led a study in the UK called Families, Children and Childcare which found that home-reared kids do better than kids in other childcare environments, but that care by childminders or other family members are second and third best.

Creche care came last. Penelope Leach came right out and stated that the less group care a kid gets before he or she is three years old, the better. Many others studies have confirmed this finding, but some put the bar on entering group care lower, at about two years. If you were to take your cue from the media, you would swear that there wasn't a home-reared kid left in the country, a situation presented as "progress". I mean, how could a parent compare with a carer educated to degree level?

But full-time creche care for the under-threes has never been popular here, with about 3pc of parents using this form of childcare and 75pc of Irish children under 12 are reared by a parent at home. The problem with this situation, as far as the Government is concerned, is that parents don't make money. Which means they don't have money. That's why you never see them in advertisements. Only 40pc of women in the home have a credit or Laser card as opposed to 64pc of women workers. Worst of all, only 14pc of homemakers have a pension, while 42pc of women workers do.

It's this economic inequality which has persuaded feminists that it is bad for women to stay home with kids. Unless they are other people's kids and they are paid for their work.

And feminists are right on this one. It's financially disastrous for women, or men, to stay home. The media act as if the cost of childcare were only a problem for those who go out to work. But one writer in the US calculated that a college-educated woman loses one million dollars out of her life-time income if she stays home with one child.

Idiot

There are two ways to react to that information. Get out to work no matter how you feel about it either for yourself or your kid. Or change the rules completely. Start a real campaign for parental leave for a child's first three years as exists in many countries, including Germany and France.

All right, extra Government spending is unlikely at the moment, so let's at least look for a right to part-time work if our kids are small, as also exists in many countries, including the UK.

Think of the benefit to society of freeing up some temporary posts for jobless young people to fill. What kind of an idiot society would stick a young mam who misses her kid to her desk while the ranks of the unemployed are swollen?

But there are bigger questions here. Why does a parent in the home, doing the vital work of raising kids, qualify for no pension or benefits?

And some mothers don't even get a share of the action in their own homes. Why don't homemakers have a legal right to half the income of the home, as Irish feminists were arguing 20 years ago?

Many more parents would probably stay home for a few years with young kids if we valued kids enough to value homemakers. But that's not where we're at, and while many kids have only one parent, other families must put two parents into the workplace to keep food in their kids' mouths.

And in some families, both parents just love their work. Good for them. There is no place for guilt about going out to work because you will not be a good carer for your child if you don't want to be there.

But try to keep your child in the family. If not your family, then another family. Can your sister or mam take over? No? Well then, find a surrogate mammy, a local childminder or small creche which has a mix of ages and looks like a family. Keep your kid in the community if you possibly can.

The best childcare regimes for very young children give a payment to a parent in the home which can be passed on to a registered local service, as is the case in Finland, France and Norway.

No government should ever try to decide where a child should be reared. Only parents have real expertise in the needs of their child and their family. The Government's childcare strategy should start with children's homes and move on to homes-from-home. A good model would be the Danish "daycare mother" scheme which resources mams to mind other people's kids but bonds them in groups and gives them training opportunities and a communal Play House.

I'd love to see the creches built with public money turned into such community children's centres for both parents and minders, dove-tailing with the free preschool scheme. And I'd love to see afterschool provision supplied by parents who can take a few extra kids home with their own at the end of the school day, supported by training and activities in those same community children's centres.

We need to resist any attempt by our Government to take our Child Benefit off us to build a state childcare system. Instead, we parents need support to build our childcare system home by home, community by community.


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