Kathleen Marshall told an early years conference in New Lanark on Saturday that society needed to free families to care, not just through the practical provision of childcare, but by allowing for "emotional space".
Professor Marshall told the annual conference of the British Association for Early Childhood Education: "Much of the discourse about childcare in our society focuses on the needs of working parents. But, when we refocus on the needs of the children rather than the parents, we must recognise the stronger claim to our care and resources of those whose parents' ability to nurture them is diminished or obviated by their demoralisation, depression or dependency on drugs or alcohol.
"Many of these parents will not be working. But that does not mean that they are available to care for their children."
She still had reservations about the assumption that work outside the home was more valuable than parenting. A recent study had shown that 70 per cent of non-working mothers in Scotland would prefer to work or study if they had access to convenient, reliable and affordable childcare - which meant that 30 per cent preferred to stay at home.
For those who preferred to work outside the home, this could be an important factor in providing the positive "family environment" promoted by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Referring to New Lanark's industrial heritage, Professor Marshall said: "While hours at the mill were long, the workers were well-treated, the children were close to hand and the community was small and cohesive.
"This is quite a different situation from today's urban and suburban existence, where facilities are not necessarily community-based; where carers may be relative strangers and where parents may be stressed out by the demands of a working week that may involve fewer hours (in some cases at least), but longer commutes and a greater sense of alienation than in New Lanark."
Calling for creative thinking in finding ways to support "unparented children" who suffer because of substance misuse within the family or chaotic family behaviour, Professor Marshall warned that social services were becoming overstretched.
The challenge was to identify a means of supporting families that acknowledged the "hidden" nature of much of the problem. "Kinship carers" and the wider community needed help in looking after their own, without placing an undue burden on them.
Among the inspirations for finding a solution to this challenge was Robert Owen's New Lanark model. While accepting that elements of the New Lanark experiment sat uncomfortably with today's perspectives, she said it should be considered inspirational because it was the result of creative and caring thinking.