Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Boris, "Kelly Hours", Childcare and Choice

Your faithful and diligent Pedant-General is not known for pulling his punches. So I shall start this short discussion on childcare in general by nailing my colours to the mast. Jackie O pretty much sums up my views on the matter:
"If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much."
Thus, although the contributions of Boris Johnson and Tim Worstall are as astute as one has come to expect, I can't help feeling that there is something missing.

Take this:
I may be wrong in this, but it strikes me that there may be huge numbers of mothers who would very much like to stay at home and look after a three-year-old, but who feel they have no option. They may feel they have to go out to work, because the family finances do not permit otherwise; not just because they need to pay a mortgage but because, like all middle- and lower-income groups in this country, they are brutally taxed by Labour.
No, Boris, you are not wrong. But you are having to mince your words as, although correct, they are not politically correct. "There may be huge numbers of mothers" is too weak. All of the mothers of small or pre-school children of my acquaintance who work, almost entirely without exception, have a constant struggle against their - absolutely natural - desire to spend more time with their children. Even Lady P-G, who is indeed a force to be reckoned with, has a recurrent complaint that - what with the school run, swimming lessons and keeping the grace and favour apartment in shape - she does not have the time she would like to attend to all of the questions and to spend quiet time with each of the young masters Pedant-General individually.

I also completely concur with his heavily emphasised caveat:
I don't want to seem sexist. I don't want to come across as a fuddy-duddy. I know how many working women will be absolutely thrilled that they can now make use of Kelly hours, and dump their children off at school at 8am, and then pick them up at 6pm, after a long and butt-kicking day in the bond markets; and I want to assure all female readers - especially my wife - that I have no interest whatever in the days when women were chained to the kitchen sink. I believe in women going out to work, if they so choose.
And, from a purely economic perspective, I cannot fault Boris's conclusion:
"Since I am a Conservative, I think it might be better if we gave those who needed it the option of using this Sure Start money to pay for, say, grandparents to mind the children, and keep the children at home. Better yet, we could have personal tax breaks for everyone who has to pay for childcare. Now that is a suggestion that should win me a vote at tomorrow morning's breakfast."
However - and it is a socking huge great "however" - this appears to be the right answer to the wrong question. In all the focus on the provision of childcare and the means to give parents choice, there is one ingredient that is starkly missing from the mix: the child.

Is it - really, genuinely and in the long term - in the interests of the child to be in institutional care from 8am until 6pm every working day? I doubt it, even in an ideal world at the very best, most loving, secure and happy nursery.

But even if I didn't doubt it - which I do - the world of pre-school care is most certainly not ideal. I offer three stories to support this rather large and sweeping generalisation.

Story 1:
Friend "A" has two children, who were packed off to a spectacularly expensive and wholesome nursery as soon as each achieved the venerable age of 6 months. As "A" sometimes has to work a little later than the appointed collection time, and as friend "B" - a godmother - is often on hand, "B" is frequently called upon to do the honours and, consequently, knows the nursery well. However, when quizzed on the prevailing mood at the nursery, she replied:
"It's awful. It's an orphanage."
She was visibly distressed, but then - unlike the parents of these poor benighted children - she did not have to suppress the feeling of distress every time she visited.

Story 2:
We have the pleasure of the acquaintance of an extremely nice young girl - whom we shall refer to as "C" - from one of the new member-states of the EU, who was an invaluable help to us following the birth of the youngest master Pedant-General. She now works in a local nursery, which the eldest master Pedant-General had attended previously. As a result, we can vouch for the fact that this outfit is extremely well-respected. "C", however, was horrified when she started work. A 6-month old baby had just started at the nursery and was clearly beside himself. He would bawl his eyes out solidly for the entire time that he was at the nursery. "C" couldn't believe that he was not being cuddled or comforted, but was rebuffed by other members of staff with the line:
"He's just got to get used to it. If we pick him up, he'll never acclimatise and we would have a nursery full of screaming babies."
In effect, the nursery needed routinely to break the spirit of 6 month old babies, since otherwise the whole concept would be unworkable.

Story 3:
Same nursery, same girl, different complaint. Having moved to a room with slightly older children, she was staggered to find that it was almost impossible to instill discipline. The nursery policy was not only that physical chastisement should be off-limits - which may or may not be sensible - but also that no verbal rebuke should be used. Staff could only tell their charges that behaviour was "silly" and no more.

Does this strike you as a sensible basis for nurturing a generation of well-adjusted and productive citizens, with an innate sense of right and wrong? This is not to denigrate the work of carers and staff in nurseries. It is just simply impossible for them to operate within the law, if at all, without these examples being, not just illustrations, but something close to the norm.

As regards the teaching of right and wrong in particular, much courage and tenacity is required to stick to a particular line and to instill the clear idea that certain forms of behaviour are not acceptable. This is difficult to delegate to someone who does not have such a powerful vested interest in the outcome - that of having a settled and happy family life. Why? I will quote Graham Norton here, in a fabulous throw-away line from "Just a Minute":
"Children are like farts: people tend to like their own."
You must love your child if you are correct bad behaviour without simply making them fearful. No matter how dedicated even a nanny may be, she - let's face it: it's going to be a she - does not have to deal with the long term consequences of having a feral child in the house. She can walk away. Consequently her willpower to stand up to a child's tantrum is that much less than the child's parents. That, unfortunately, is human nature. Even more unfortunately, it is a failing of the Left/PC-crowd in general that they broadly deny human nature at every turn.

So where am I heading with this? Am I confining at least one parent of every child to 3 or 4 years MINIMUM out of the workplace?

This brings me back to Boris's conclusions.
"Better yet, we could have personal tax breaks for everyone who has to pay for childcare."
That is the crucial point. I suggest that there is something much more fundamentally wrong with our society when it is almost impossible for an average family to be able to have one parent at home for those crucial first years of their children's lives. Isn't that parent then - shock horror - economically unproductive? George Bernard Shaw doesn't think so:
"Perhaps the greatest social service that can be rendered by anybody to this country and to mankind is to bring up a family."

But where, you ask, is the "choice" in that?

Well brace yourself: this is not going to be politically correct.
I suggest that choice is a double-edged sword.
I suggest that choice is only truly free if an individual is prepared to accept the consequences of his or her choices.
I suggest that the parents made a choice to beget a child.

Now compare this with the position of the child. It did not choose to be brought into the world. It most certainly does not have a choice as to his or her childcare arrangements.

And if it did, I think it would choose to be with its mother.


Boeciana said...

Hear hear. Especially on the last point. (If I have any right to an opinion, as one with no children and no foreseeable prospect thereof.)

The Pedant-General in Ordinary said...

Well I'm pleased to have got that out of my system. That post has been brewing for a few days now...

On a similar topic, v interested to see your analysis of the basis and purpose of marriage. Might have to do a post on that....

Oh and apologies for failing to get my blogroll up - I will link in due course.


dearieme said...

It worked for the Spartans, but it is hard to reconcile with the touchy-feely sentimentality that permeates the rest of society. Your children will be brought up as hard nuts, but you are such a softy that not a breath of criticism of your "faith" is to be allowed. Hm.

berenike said...

Dang, I was going to say hear, hear.

Though I would say that in the few months I spent living with someone else's small children I was not the most backward in attempting to knock some manners into them . . .

Arniemac said...

As a new reader, may I comment on your point that one has the choice to reproduce.Some may be , as it were , may be in a position to have their cake and eat it: for the majority however , it's a case of " Get yourself banged up dear, and that means a sentence of hard labour for 5 years, and no remission for good behaviour".

Arniemac said...

Your comment that there is a choice to have sprogs or not is a valid one. If you choose to get banged up, ( apart from a favoured few), you have to serve the sentence; minimum of 5 years hard labour, with no remission allowed for good behaviour,( unless mum or mum-in-law steps in for the odd hour.)