Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 12 September 2011

A question of childcare

Say what you like about Aric Sigman, the man has guts.

The author of books on the effects of a drinking culture and television* on children is no stranger to controversy, but this week he boldly goes where few men have gone before; he has taken on that most redoubtable of foes, the working mother.
Putting children into day care may change their brain structure and function, according to research. 
The study by Dr Aric Sigman found that 70-80% of children in day care centres showed increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout each day they were there.
Now that's what I call putting your head above the parapet! Up and down the country, I imagine mothers preparing for work were screaming at the radio as Sigman explained his findings on the Today programme, suggesting that sustained raised cortisol levels could have as-yet undetermined effects on the child's long-term health.

Now, I have to admit that there are times when I feel like echoing Ripley's outburst in 'Aliens' - "Did IQ's just drop sharply while I was away?" - and when the issue of daycare comes up is one of them.

It's well-known that taking a puppy away from its mother too early means that you're more likely to end up with an insecure or even aggressive pet; why do so many people persist in believing that the same would not apply to a six-week-old baby suddenly deprived of its mother for most of the day?

And what benefit does the mother see from this? Well, there are plenty of high-flying career women going straight from the labour ward to their desks but its a fair bet they can afford high-quality one-to-one childcare (or follow the example of superwoman Nicola Horlick, who tellingly conducted an interview on how she single-handedly managed a career and a young family with her mother bent wordlessly over a sink-full of washing-up in the background).

The reverse of the coin are those mothers for whom childcare swallows up most of their earnings - my sister once worked for a high-street shop where some of the staff, once they paid for childcare, lunch and travel, had less than £20 a week left over.

So why do they do it? For some, whether by inclination or because they have bought into the 'having it all' culture, it's definitely because they want to - begging the question 'why have a baby at all if you don't want to spend time with it?' - but plenty of women out there are trapped by a phenomenon familiar to anyone who drives on busy motorways.

Ever hogged the middle lane because you know that, if you pull in behind the lorry 500m ahead, you'll never get back out to overtake it? The same thing is happening in employment, with mothers reluctantly heading back to work because they fear that, if they drop out until the child goes to school, they may never find another job.

And of course they are right - because so many of the available jobs are already taken up by other mothers of under-5s. I'm no Mark Wadsworth but even I can see this doesn't make sense at all; if Ms A goes out to work and pays most of her income after work expenses to her childminder Ms B, then why not cut out the middle-man (sorry, woman!) and give Ms B the job in the first place?

The answer, of course, is economic activity, two women in the workplace and paying tax are better than one, even if the workplace of one is the other's home and the childcare is subsidised by the state - it's a bit like the bank wanting us to transfer money back and forth between accounts because it shows up on the books as income and productive banking activity.

If Sigman is right, and babies do suffer long-term ill effects from being put into childcare at an early age, then it could spell the end of a culture that regards infants as so many parcels to be left until called for; the ultimate expression of baby as accessory to a lifestyle.

It would be interesting to see if that correlates with a subsequent improvement in Britain's educational standards and achievement.


*'Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives', memorable for basing some of its conclusions on an experiment in which seven ferrets were sat in a row and repeatedly shown 'The Matrix' - proof, if it were needed, that some scientists have too much time on their hands.

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