Thursday, 11 December 2008

I'm too old to understand child minders

Some political ideas just cannot get through my thick skull. It's my fault entirely for being an old fuddy-duddy. For years the government has been encouraging mothers to go to work and leave their children with childminders. My fuddy-duddy brain says this is upside-down. If children are so young they need to be looked after during the day I cannot see any circumstances in which it is best for that to be done by anyone other than their parents, in reality that means their mothers in the vast majority of cases. I leave to one side that small number of mothers who are unfit to look after a wheelbarrow let alone a child, I am interested in the dedicated loving mothers who want their children to grow up safe, secure, well behaved and well educated.

It wasn't very long ago that being a parent was seen as a career in itself. My late mother took that view. She worked as a secretary after leaving school and up until a few months before her first child was born. I have no doubt she was a very good secretary and could, had she been so minded, have had a long and successful career doing something she enjoyed very much. But she wanted to have a family and she wanted her children to have the best upbringing she could give them. That required her to be in charge of our care when we were very young. Any suggestion that she should go back to work and leave someone else to look after us would have been met with gasps of incredulity and the question: "What do you mean 'go back to work'? This is work. This is my career now and it's a bloody sight tougher and more worthwhile than anything else I could do."

To my mind her attitude is unquestionably sound. Bringing children up is a difficult job; not just the long hours, the mess and all the other physical strains it imposes but also the need to nurture the brain as well as the body and turn the little pink potato shaped thing you brought home from hospital into a fully functioning, sensible and fair minded adult who will be a useful addition to the world. How can it possibly be thought right to pass that heavy responsibility to another when you are the only person those children will ever be able to call "Mum"? I just don't see it.

In an excellent piece today the very fine Mr Stan wrote about this topic and discussed how feminism has affected the issue. I agree with every word he wrote but I want to address a different aspect of it because feminism is, I believe, only one of the factors that has led to the extraordinary situation of mothers delegating their position to others. I am intrigued by the potential self-interest of the government in encouraging mothers to take paid work and pass their children to child-minders.

Unemployment statistics treat every adult between the ages of 18 and 65 as a potential worker. If they are not engaged in paid work they are treated as unemployed. A housewife (what an antiquated term that now seems) is unemployed in the eyes of the statistics. Still worse for the government is that a housewife in a family that is paid tax credits is not only unemployed she is claiming welfare benefits too. Put her back in the office or the factory and the government receives a triple statistical boon. First she is no longer unemployed. Secondly the household income might rise above the level which entitles them to claim tax credits. And thirdly, someone else is paid to look after the children and is either removed from the unemployed list or receives extra income which might take them off tax credits too.

No one can say with any authority whether children suffer by being looked after by child minders during working hours rather than their parents. No doubt there are some instances in which there is a huge benefit because the child minder is a better influence than the parents would have been and, equally, there will be some instances in which the child minder is a disaster. Looking at things in the round I would not expect any great harm to result because the vast majority of child minders are probably like the vast majority of people and work hard to do the best job they can. What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that a few years hence there will be an awful lot of parents who will ask whether problems their children have are the result of being left to the care of child minders rather than having their mothers to guide them throughout their childhood.

What can also be said with certainty is that a government obsessed with statistics will pursue policies that improve their statistics. Having people "in work" is an end in itself for such a government. That does not necessarily mean they will pursue statistically favourable policies regardless of the consequences, but where the consequences cannot be measured, as in this case, statistical advantage can only encourage the push for more mothers to be in paid employment.

I wonder how many mothers who have felt compelled to return to work while their children are young will look back in the years ahead and regret their decision. Their children might well turn out to be fine people and will be a cause for pride, but they only had one chance to bring them up and once it has gone it has gone. How many will say "I wish I had been with them all the time when they were little"? I guess the number will be vast, people who missed some special thing their child said or some milestone in their lives because they were at work at the time and another woman witnessed it not the child's mother. You cannot put a price on momentous occasions like the time your child takes his first step or utters her first word, stirs their first cake mixture or first engages in "I'll show you mine if you show me yours". They are little things implanted in your mind forever, part of your personal history as well as the personal history of your child. They are things that matter because they are natural parts of the parental process, hearing second-hand what you should have witnessed yourself deprives you of something that is your right as a parent.

Perhaps one day a government will think beyond statistics and balance sheets and realise that parenthood doesn't have a price either for children or for parents themselves. My mother didn't live to see her children grow up but she knew her second career was successful because she spent every minute being a mother while still able to do so. It is sad to think that many will live to a ripe old age without being able to say the same. No government policy should pressurise mothers into abandoning such an important and natural part of their lives.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Why doesn't the gummint just butt out? It should not have a preference or prejudice either way. You cannot possibly double-guess what's right or wrong for millions of mothers.

Although I am in favour of 'nursery vouchers' analogous to 'education vouchers'. £70 per child per week would be perfectly affordable if you scrapped all the other schemes and subsidies and tax breaks.

barmaid said...

It is a sad reality that in many cases, mums have to go out to work because a single income from a father in an 'oridinary' job just doesn't provide enough income to make ends meet.

I feel sorry for some kids nowadays, although they probably live in nice homes, their lives are a daily grind of being trundled from pillar to post - pre school clubs (because parents have to drop kids off at school at death o clock and head off to work themselves), after school clubs, homework, bath and bed. Not much of a life compared to my humble, but traditional childhood with mum waiting when I got home from school, pleased to hear what I'd been doing that day and there to offer support when needed.

dmc said...

I do not think there is such a thing as childhood nowadays.Image is everything and this is relentlesly reinforced by the media.We were very poor but we did not want for anything that really mattered.

TheFatBigot said...

All three comments tie together nicely.

Mr Wadsworth shares my view that it would be beneficial for house prices to fall back to a natural level, unaffected by the inflation caused by cheap loans. If you can't borrow the money you can't offer it to the seller, so he has to reduce his price.

Huge mortgages force both parents to work. Most houses were about double their natural value in the summer of 2007. Not a fact, just my opinion. Nice though it was to be able to chop up FatBigot Towers and sell a third of it for almost three times what I paid for the whole 15 years ago, it shows just how artificial prices became.

We won't get back to the days of "ordinary working people" buying houses for cash, but mortgage loans limited to 2 1/2 times main income and a 20% deposit will reduce prices to a level at which there will not be as widespread a need as now for both parents to work.

If that position is reached (more a hope than an expectation) there might be a chance of childhood returning. It will be a struggle because the influence of the mindless celebrity culture is enormous. It will need strong leadership from somewhere and the opening of eyes to what most people would realise is obvious if only they were required to think about it.

Mark Wadsworth said...

TFB, the argument that high house prices destroy family life is another one that was at the back of my mind when arguing that the government should never have allowed prices to inflate as they did, and moreover should not now be concerned with propping them up.

But the statistics don't particularly show that child birth rates have fallen - presumably because the Karen Matthews of this world balance out all the double-income-no-kids couples who can only afford a one or two-bedroom flat. So it's difficult to quantify.

Anonymous said...

It has always seemed odd to me, that a woman would want to go out to work just to earn the money which, after tax, is almost all spent paying someone else to look after her children.

What's the point? Why have kids in the first place?

I am for ever grateful that neither my mother nor my wife subscribed to this peculiar philosophy when their children were young.