A US study of the pre-school childcare dilemma confirms the urgent UK agenda, argues Gerald Haigh
What Children Need. By Jane Waldfogel. Harvard University Press. Pounds 22.95.
A family friend, now in her 60s, walks her daughter's two boys to and from school each day. In the school holidays she has these lively lads at home virtually all the time. She loves them dearly, of course, and the relationship enriches their lives and hers. The intensity of her commitment, though, is the result of her daughter's need to earn a living, and for the time being it's put an end to many of her own aspirations and interests.
What's remarkable is not so much that she does this, but that it's becoming quite normal to find grandparents and other relatives carrying that sort of load. Jane Waldfogel quotes research that states: "60 per cent (of relatives giving childcare) were taking care of children because they wanted to help out the parents not because they wanted to care for children."
The tensions of childcare are everywhere to be seen. If you could look behind all those preoccupied faces on the morning commute, you'd see the questions. Should my child really be with someone else for 10 hours? Should my mum still be knocking herself out with the kids? Am I just trying to convince myself about the quality of my child's day care? Was he really well enough to go to school today? Should I be working at all? The overwhelming conclusion is that a large part of the population is experiencing a constant nagging guilt.
Professor Waldfogel writes: "It is little wonder, then, that today's parents are so stressed and that working parents are left feeling, 'still guilty after all these years'." Her analysis is written from an American perspective, and most of her statistics refer to the United States, but the issues and her discussion of them transcend national boundaries.
The pressures, she argues (and, inevitably the guilt) increase all the time, not only because more parents are working, but because over the past 20 years or so parenting itself has been front-loaded with a host of expectations over and above the basics of physical care. "Babies, it turned out, needed not just feeding and diapering - they were active learners, and the experiences that parents provided for them would lay the groundwork for their future success."
One way to get some of the angst out of the equation is to try for some clarity about what children need - physically, cognitively, emotionally - at different stages in their lives. This is the question that Professor Waldfogel sets out to address, reviewing observational and empirical research from across the US and Europe. Her key question holds good everywhere: "Is early parental employment harmful to children? It is hard to think of a question in developmental psychology that has been more hotly debated than this one."
She doesn't equivocate about the answer. "In my view, the research on this point is now quite clear. Children do fare better on average if their mothers do not work full-time in the first year of life."
The author emphasises that "full-time in the first year" is deliberately specific, because, she goes on: "Part-time work in the first year does not have adverse effects on most outcomes, and work after the first year has neutral or positive effects."
There's probably a good consensus about mums not working full-time in year one. That next conclusion, though, particularly the bit about the "neutral or positive effects" of being a working mother after that first year, could give some reassurance. The arguments for the positive side are familiar: a working mother may have a richer life outside the home and have more money to spend on nutrition, some children develop better physically, cognitively or socially with a carer or in a pre-school setting.
Always, though, Professor Waldfogel insists: "What matters most about the care that children receive in the pre-school years is its quality."
The task of government, she concludes, is to underpin the quality of childcare through a number of measures which, essentially, would provide more flexibility for parents. She wants better financial support, for example, for parents to stay home in baby's first year, and also to have more options for part-time work, and for medical leave when children are ill.
On the other side of the coin she wants better pre-school programmes, and a more flexible approach to the school calendar so that the home-school partnership could work more effectively into adolescence. Children, particularly the youngest ones, can't easily make their views known. They are, in fact, astonishingly amiable and tolerant of what is asked of them - how many of us being hurried along through the cold and the rain to granny's in the early morning could summon up a song and a delighted cry of "Look! Doggy!" Surely these little ones deserve nothing but the best.
"So," concludes Jane Waldfogel, "There is no excuse for waiting. The time to act is now."