Have we forgotten the child in the childcare debate?

We’re pitting children against careers—and everyone loses out

October 17, 2022
A March of the Mummies demonstration in 2017. Photo: Dinendra Haria / Alamy Stock Photo
A March of the Mummies demonstration in 2017. Photo: Dinendra Haria / Alamy Stock Photo

We are facing a childcare crisis. Some parents spend more on childcare than their mortgage; women are leaving their jobs because childcare is so expensive that work doesn’t pay; nurseries are closing due to government under-funding. Coverage is generally framed in terms of economics and the push for greater female equality in the workforce. Pressure is building, with a planned “March of the Mummies” later this month in cities across the UK. Prime Minister Liz Truss is reportedly considering a wide range of potential new childcare policies, including increasing universal hours, or giving a large cash payout to every family for them to choose whether to spend it on professional childcare or to support family care in the home. She is also said to be looking at extending policies to cover children under two years old and reducing the ratio of nursery carers to children. We’re seeing a reckoning in how we pay for, and provide, care for babies and small children but there’s a crucial voice missing from this debate (probably because most of them can’t speak)—the babies and toddlers whose care is at stake.

Penelope Leach, a renowned psychologist specialising in child development, worries we prioritise work to the detriment of children’s care. Leach is most famous for her best-selling advice guide Your Baby andChild (recently updated and republished), but she’s also written passionate polemics advocating child-centred policies. The introduction to her book Who Cares?, published in 1979, rages against the logic of capitalism taking precedence over the needs of children. She argues that we worship work to such a degree that “obstacles to people working must be removed. If those obstacles happen to be people too, whether very old or very young ones, they should be gathered into groups out of the worker's way and there, in institutions, their care can constitute that vital job of work for somebody else.” Put another way, “The people of the future must not be allowed to hamper the workers of today.” Leach would like us to adopt a different mindset. Her mantra is “Children first, and babies first of those.”

Leach’s reasoning is simple. She tells me, “What happens to infants at the very beginning of life is more important than anything that comes afterwards.” The first 1,001 days of a child’s life, from growing in their mother’s womb until their second birthday, are the foundation for all that follows. A baby’s brain is constantly building connections. Their interactions affect how they are wired for life. Relationships are critical. As child development expert Robin Balbernie has said, “the quality of children’s relationships will be reflected in the architecture of their brains.” If a child has a secure attachment to their mother or primary caregiver, that child will be more likely to enjoy happy and healthy relationships throughout their life. If a baby’s emotional needs are met, they’re likely to have better life-long mental health and self-control. Babies that are well loved and cared for have the best chance of becoming loving and caring people. 

Given the vital importance of the first few years of life, how can we give every child the best start? I asked a range of child development experts what they’d recommend and they all told me the same thing: for the first two and a half years, a child is ideally best cared for by parents and grandparents, individuals with whom they’ll have a consistent, loving and interested relationship. Babies and toddlers need as much attentive one-to-one care as possible. 

But as feminists have noted, an emphasis on family care can harm women’s career development and increase the gender pay gap. This is the tension at the heart of childcare policy—between freeing parents to work and giving infants the strongest start. Campaigning organisation Pregnant Then Screwed, which is organising the March of the Mummies, has three demands, two of which would help to reconcile the competing needs of children and working parents. It is calling for “flexible working as the default” (meaning all jobs should be flexible unless the employer can justify why the job can’t be done flexibly). This could help more parents to work part-time or flexible hours, enabling them to better shape work around their caring commitments. It’s also calling for “ring-fenced, properly paid parental leave”. Maternity Action has proposed a model which would pay mothers to spend a year with their children and fathers six months, together supporting children for the first 18 months of life, while more equitably sharing their care. This would be a major improvement on the current nine months of poorly paid maternity leave (or shared parental leave). It’s the third demand which merits closer scrutiny.

“Good quality affordable childcare” doesn’t sound contentious, but how that policy is designed and delivered could be. At present, the government offers 15 hours a week during termtime. of free childcare for all children from the age of three (more hours if both parents are working) and for disadvantaged children from aged two. This is in line with evidence for when group care has been shown to advantage child development. However, it’s far less clear that group care developmentally benefits babies and one-year-olds. Currently, parents who want to put their children into childcare before the free entitlement begins have to pay for it themselves and this puts a financial squeeze on working families. 

The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) has advocated for universal free childcare provision for all children in the UK from the age of six months until they begin primary school, for up to 40 hours a week. At six months, most babies are just mastering how to sit up and haven’t yet learnt to crawl, walk or talk. They’re starting to experiment with trying food other than milk. It’s a key time for their developing attachment. I ask WBG Director Mary-Ann Stephenson if she had any concerns about six-month-old babies being in institutional care for up to 40 hours a week. In response, she stresses the importance of care being “high quality”.

Whether only quality matters was a hotly debated point in America in the 1980s, when the “day-care wars” raged. In response, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) launched a major longitudinal study to gather evidence, at a cost of $150m. The study followed 1,361 children from birth until the age of 15, and investigated the impacts of both the quality and quantity of day care on children’s outcomes. It found that while high-quality day care predicted better cognitive-linguistic functioning, the more time children sent in day care (whether high quality or not), the more aggressive and disobedient they were likely to be. In other words, more hours spent in day care had negative emotional and behavioural impacts on some children. 

I ask Professor Jay Belsky, one of the study’s investigators, why people are still arguing that only quality matters when it comes to childcare. Are social scientists and reporters reluctant to share the findings around longer hours in case it makes parents feel guilty? Belsky erupts: “By that logic, scientists wouldn’t tell people the truth about climate change, because that makes people feel guilty too.” 

“Don’t catastrophise the findings. I’ve never said, ‘if you put children into childcare they’ll be psychopaths,’” he adds. Social science is probabilistic, not deterministic. But he questions the intellectual honesty of those who seize on the positive findings about cognitive development whilst disregarding the findings about social and emotional behaviour. He also stresses that the study’s major finding was that“parenting matters most”. The best predictor of a child’s outcomes came from their relationship with their parents, regardless of their childcare arrangements. The more attentive and “tuned-in” the parenting, the better for the child. 

If parenting is paramount, that’s probably where public money should be spent. The trouble with a universal childcare offer for babies is that it would incentivise parents to return to work more quickly than they otherwise might and does nothing for parents who would like to look after their own children. Over a decade ago, Policy Exchange suggested an alternative proposal—a universal Parental Care Allowance. Such a cash benefit would empower parents with real choice. They could choose to spend their money on professional childcare or use it to reimburse themselves or a relative or trusted friend to do the job. The beauty of the policy is that it doesn’t discriminate between any form of care. It allows parents to choose the best arrangement for their child and their circumstances. It also recognises the valuable contribution of parents who choose to stay at home. Liz Truss has recently revived the idea of cash payments to parents, though how the policy could be implemented—in particular which age group it would apply to—begs its own set of questions.

Finland already offers a “Child Home Care Allowance” for parents who don’t wish to put their children into daycare, which is currently around €362 (£306) per month for one child under three years, with further supplements paid per family income. Finland also offers municipal daycare or an allowance for parents using private daycare. Parents choose the type of support that works for them.

The primary argument against a Parental Care Allowance here is that it would be more expensive, making it a tougher sell to the Treasury. Stephenson also worries that it might incentivise people, particularly women, not to work while their children are very small and that would perpetuate (or even worsen) the gender pay gap. 

Over 40 years after Leach published Who Cares?, we’re still pitting children against careers. Yet most people have jobs rather than careers and would prefer to work less and see their children more. Over the course of a working life, the years of rearing little people are relatively short and yet their effects—quite literally—last a lifetime. How many of us have jobs that produce anything as lastingly valuable as a well-launched child? Wouldn’t state investment in resilient children be the best long-term investment of all? It’s easy to say that being a parent is the most important job in the world, but until we treat it as such, we’ll be struggling over childcare without caring enough for the child.