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The Globe and Mail

Childcare is key. Good parents are, too

The real question about what's best for our kids has to take in that immutable reality: Women work

The Globe and Mail, by Judith Timson, June 23, 2009

Being a parent has always been about being judged. Way back before any so-called Mommy Wars, there were neighbours and relatives clucking about your child's atrocious manners or the fact you spoiled your kids. Or even occasionally lost track of them.

Now, of course, much of the judgment is ideologically fixated on childcare arrangements, as if everything you need to know about the quality of a child's life is revealed by whether her mother works outside the home.

Some social conservatives wistfully want to return to the land of the child-focused stay-at-home mom. Would those be the mothers I see pushing strollers distractedly while madly texting? Or the ones with kids velcroed to home computers, who are, as Bill Moyers once trenchantly put it, being "raised by appliances"?

Others say that both mothers and children are happier when mom has an "outlet," which often turns into a punishing 9-to-5 (or more) job and an exhausted and stressed parent.

Even contemplating those two stereotypical polarities is a waste of time. The truth is that economic realities have resulted in more Canadian women being in the work force than ever before. So the real question about what's best for our kids has to take in that immutable reality: Women work.

Still, the debate about whether our children are suffering the consequences of this dual working-parent world is legitimate. Are they safe? Emotionally secure? Intellectually thriving?

We need to keep finding new ways to make sure they have the attention, stimulation and emotional security they need to grow into healthy and productive adults and not just hark back to the old ways. For that reason I like the new Ontario government proposal for optional full-day kindergarten.

Many young children would thrive in that kind of stimulating environment. For those who would be overwhelmed, their parents could make other arrangements that suit their finances and family dynamic.

Many parents who now cobble together a complex web of childcare, including babysitters, daycare and family members, would breathe a sigh of relief knowing they have a one-stop, full-day option.

In the best possible scenario, children with learning disabilities would be identified sooner, and those who are more vulnerable at home would have a safe environment in which to play under the supervision of high-quality teachers trained in early childhood development.

One long-term U.S. research project, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, showed there are few significant differences between children cared for exclusively by their mothers and those in any form of daycare. And in a longitudinal study reaching even further back - the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, which followed children living in poverty in Michigan who are now in their 40s - researchers concluded that "high-quality preschool programs" for those kids contributed to "their school success, economic performance and reduced commission of crime in adulthood."

Of course it all depends on the quality of daycare. And the quality of parenting. Just as there are great and terrible daycares and preschools, there are great and terrible parents. (Most of us lie somewhere in between, in what's known in psychological parlance as the "good-enough parent" category.) No matter which childcare arrangement is used, nurturing parents are a key predictor of success.

But we can't make assumptions based only on socioeconomic status. The most poignant thing ever said to me by a teacher when my kids were growing up was that despite their ups and downs, "I don't worry about kids from middle-class homes like yours. They already have what they need."

Yet according to Charles Pascal, the early learning adviser to the Ontario government, that is not quite true: "60 per cent of all vulnerable children (those with learning disabilities or psychological problems) do not live in low-income homes." Mr. Pascal is so loquaciously enthusiastic about what he calls "exciting and fun early education" that he sometimes sounds like a crazed Mr. Rogers. He told me his full-day kindergarten recommendations, which will start being implemented in 2010, are "an enemy of the status quo."

He also pointed out that a large percentage of mothers in France who send their kids to full-day kindergarten are stay-at-home moms. To some, it seems shocking that a school environment, no matter how qualified its early childhood educators are, could replace those halcyon days at home for four- and five-year-olds, who should be building tree forts in the back yard and hanging with mom.

But those halcyon days have to be rejigged. How about sending the kids to full-day kindergarten but being able to leave work, pick them up at 3:30 and build a tree fort with them?

Of course, that would require employers to "rejig" too, and that's a whole other assault on the status quo.